Like many children in the Sierra foothills, Faith and Drew Oakes felt cheated by all the wildfires last summer.
The unheathful pall of dense smoke kept them indoors for weeks on end, when they otherwise would have been playing soccer and tennis.
Not long after the skies cleared, Faith, Drew and four other children from the Interstate 80 corridor communities of Newcastle, Auburn and Meadow Vista hatched a champion idea to help firefighters snuff out blazes before they smoke out communities. And the reward for ingenuity should more than make up for the children’s lost summer of 2008.
The group has been selected out of 13,000 youth teams from 40 countries to present their innovation at an upcoming Children’s Climate Call conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. They will compete against five similar youth teams worldwide for the chance to make their project a reality.
Locally, the team has presented its project to officials with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and on Saturday the California Licensed Foresters Association, at its annual conference in Sacramento.
The children’s idea is to post solar-powered video cameras linked to the Internet above the tree lines around the Tahoe National Forest.
They also would make available a free screensaver for computer monitors that would rotate multiple real-time views of the forest.
“While you are looking at these pretty photos, you’re also being a set of eyes for a possible fire,” Alejandro Vega, 12, explained Saturday to the foresters, who were all smiles and applause.
Any number of people on the Internet would become virtual fire lookouts, vastly supplementing the few volunteers who staff the three actual lookout towers in the Tahoe forest.
“It really can be anyone, and that’s what we find special and innovative about our idea,” said Faith Oakes, 13.
The screensaver idea borrows from one developed by University of California, Berkeley, scientists who needed more computer power than they could possibly afford to pick up a wide array of radio frequencies from outer space in search of extraterrestial life.
They mustered the extra power by enlisting thousands willing to let the scientists remotely tap into their personal laptops or desktops when they are not in use.
“We took the idea and twisted it,” Faith said.
The children, all home-schooled, call their team the “Lego Guards,” after the toy company that co-sponsors the annual problem-solving challenge. Schoolchildren compete in small teams to develop an innovative solution to a real-world problem this year, climate change.
Guided by Heidi Buck, an artist and instructor with the Placer County Office of Education, the Lego Guards initially focused on the decline of the Sierra snowpack source of more than half of California’s freshwater.
Then it occurred to them that global warming is likely stoking a more immediate threat on the state’s environment, particularly in their pine and oak woodlands communities.
“We realized how big an impact the smoke was having on us,” Faith said.
“We really did have to spend two months indoors,” she recalled of the siege of Sierra forest fires last June and July. “We missed out on a lot of activity.”
As the climate warms, the forests become drier, the fire season stretches longer and fires become hotter and more destructive, many fire scientists say.
The children figure early fire detection can help minimize the damage and smoke.
“The sooner firefighters get there, the easier it is to control the fire,” Bobby Huckins, 12, told the foresters, who have been preaching that message for years.
Other members of the Lego Guards are Andrew Wood, 12, and Aydan Potts, 11.
The Lego Guards may have a jump on the topic designated for next year’s global competition transportation. They have to find a way to raise $12,000 to finance the team’s four-day trip to Denmark in early May.