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John Lindsey: PG&E's HD cameras improve wildfire response and provide serene images of the Central Coast

John Lindsey: PG&E's HD cameras improve wildfire response and provide serene images of the Central Coast

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People who are weather enthusiasts tend to love maps and are inquisitive and curious about the world around them. 

A few months ago, I wrote that PG&E has now installed more than 600 weather stations and 130 high-definition (HD) cameras across Northern and Central California as part of its Community Wildfire Safety Program. 

PG&E will continue to expand these networks in high fire-threat areas to enhance weather forecasting and modeling and improve its ability to predict and respond to extreme wildfire danger. 

By 2022, PG&E plans to have installed 1,300 weather stations and 600 high-definition (HD) cameras — a density of one weather station roughly every 20 circuit-miles and video coverage of approximately 90 percent within the highest fire-risk areas.

So far, there are 42 weather stations in San Luis Obispo County and 15 in northern Santa Barbara County in high fire-threat areas with more on the way. 

These station observations are available to state and local agencies and the public through online sources such as on the PG&E’s website at the National Weather Service and MesoWest (

Along with the weather stations, there is now a network of HD cameras mostly located on top of mountains and ridges used to spot fires available to the public at the ALERTWildfire Camera Network (  

This network is a situational awareness tool built by the University of California San Diego, the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Oregon. The HD, pan-tilt-zoom cameras have near-infrared capabilities that allow firefighters, first responders, and companies such as PG&E to confirm and monitor wildfires. 

Along the Central Coast, both Cal Fire and PG&E will continue to install additional cameras. During a fire, control of the cameras is transferred to firefighters.   

Not only does the AlertWildfire network of cameras provided instant intel for firefighters, but the time-lapse imagery is beautiful.

On my twitter account (@PGE_John) I posted a few of these time-lapse videos. I just love how lower elevation hills become islands in a gray sea as the marine layer comes rolling in from the Pacific. 

The cameras can be used as a tool to determine the depth of the marine layer. The cameras on top of the Cuesta Peak, Lopez Hill, La Panza, and Tepusquet Peak often show the coastal clouds coming in from the ocean in the evening and moving out the sea in the late morning during the summer.  

For the weather enthusiast, you can judge the depth of the marine layer by comparing the stratus clouds to the known elevation of the surrounding mountains. 

You see, the air near the ocean’s surface is cooled from underneath by the colder seawater and produces an inversion layer, which means the air at the surface of the sea is colder than the air above.

Near the top of the inversion layer, the cold air interacts with the warm air, and condensation occurs, which produces clouds. Think of a chilled glass of iced tea on a hot day. The water vapor in the air condenses on the outside of the cold drink. The same process occurs along our coastline, except the water vapor condenses on microscopic dust or salt particles near the inversion layer, producing marine stratus clouds. 

Inversion layers can occur anywhere from a few feet above the ocean surface up to thousands of feet in altitude. When stratus clouds lower to the ocean surface, that is what we call fog. If the inversion layer is high enough, the marine stratus can surge into the coastal valleys. As it further increases in elevation, it can travel through the passes, gaps, and even above the coastal mountain ranges into the interior, providing relief from the summer heat.

The temperature differential between the air near sea level and the air above the inversion layers can be dramatic. 

On a summer day while flying in a U.S. Navy H-3 Sea King helicopter out of North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, the air temperature was 55 degrees on the runway in foggy conditions. After takeoff, the temperature reached 85 degrees as we broke through the fog to clear skies at only 500 feet of elevation! 

Along the Central Coast, the same type of remarkable temperature gradients often develops and can be verified by utilizing the PG&E weather stations above and below the marine layer. It is a fun and educational real-world lesson for students.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.


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