Camera Network Helping Fight Wildland Fires Around Lake Tahoe (NV)

By Alan M. Petrillo

A network of high-definition cameras is functioning in the Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin in Nevada to give fire agencies early warning of wildland fires in order to allow fast, tactical responses while fires are more manageable. The network is a cooperative effort between the University of Nevada—Reno (UNR) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).

The wildland fire camera system run by University of Nevada-Reno and the United States Forest Service has 15 cameras in a footprint called Alert Tahoe. (Photo courtesy of University of Nevada-Reno.)

Graham Kent, lab director at UNR’s Nevada Seismological Laboratory, says the organization has two networks of differing styles, but at their core is the same principle, that is, early detection of wildland fires. “One network that has 15 cameras in its footprint is called Alert Tahoe and centers around the greater Lake Tahoe area, Truckee, Reno, and the western Sierra Nevada mountains,” Kent says. “The second footprint is with the Bureau of Land Management, which is a larger area where the cameras are not so close together but are far away from urban environments. There are seven cameras in that footprint that allows us to catch fires early and gives firefighters the ability to scale their response to the demand.”

Mac Heller, Camino Interagency manager for the USFS’s Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management, says the USFS purchases the cameras and has them installed through UNR. “We added two cameras this past year at Echo Summit and Big Hill lookout tower,” Heller points out. “The next two will be attached to lookout towers at Leeks Springs on the south part of the Eldorado National Forest, and Bunker Hill tower on the forest’s northeast side.”

Heller notes the cameras can be used in multiple ways. “We are using them to monitor burning projects for prescribed fires, as well as detecting wildland fires,” he says. “When we get a smoke report, we use a camera to look at the area of the report and then use computer-aided dispatch for a wildland high, medium, or low dispatch plan.”

A wildland high dispatch means two air tankers, an air attack and lead planes, a helicopter, six to eight engine companies, a couple of hand crews, a bulldozer, and water tenders, Heller says. “A wildland high dispatch puts a lot of assets at risk,” he adds. “With monitoring by camera, we can tell what the smoke column is doing and maybe drop the dispatch down to an engine, a patrol unit, and a chief officer.”

The UNR and USFS high definition camera system, which co-exists with UNR’s seismological communication system, has proven helpful in early identification of wildland fires. (Photo courtesy of University of Nevada-Reno.)

Using the camera system means minimizing risk and providing for the safety of wildland pilots and firefighters, Heller says. “And, we are able to tailor a response, which can save money,” he notes. “For example, it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 to launch the air segment of a wildland high dispatch.”

Kent points out that traditional methods of tracking wildland fires, such as call-ins of smoke by civilians, often take much too long to confirm. “In urban interface areas, many smoke call-ins are not fires,” he says. “They might be dust devils or something else, and we have to use resources to chase these false calls. And short of discovery of an actual fire, no matter what you do, it takes too long to confirm the actual fire, but with the high-definition cameras we use, they can confirm it right away because they distinguish between actual fire and other occurrences. An actual fire will be obvious to the camera.”

Kent says fire bosses and UNR staff have the ability to log into any camera for a live view of a situation. “That’s useful for fire commanders for helicopter drops and air tanker runs,” he points out. “And, the system allows us to do time lapse on demand of the scene, which can be helpful for firefighters.”

Presently, the camera system, which coexists with UNR’s seismological communication system in the area, is monitored by humans. “We are working on machine vision, where computers will use artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the cameras,” Kent says. “We are teaching the AI using algorithms from controlled burns, and also teaching it on how to identify wildland fires from the clouds.”

Heller notes that this is the third camera project in the Eldorado National Forest, and the most stable and useful. “Working with UNR, we have a stable system with their seismological equipment and fire cameras that has proved to be very helpful in early detection of wildland fires,” he says. “We believe the system will expand down the western slope into California, as well as into Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management territory.”

Brendan Kramp, director of business development for Insight Robotics Ltd., says his company installed one of its camera units, which include both thermal and visible light cameras in a single housing, on the central station fire hose tower of the Colona (BC, CAN) Fire Department. “The camera caught six fires in a July to November time period, including one that started 13 kilometers away but was caught at a ridgeline at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Kramp says.

Kramp notes the Colona camera was the first pilot program for the company in North America but that Insight Robotics is working on other pilot programs on U.S. federal lands in California and Montana as well as others in Canada.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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