By Luke Vidic | Summit Daily News
When smoke from a routine pile burn at Keystone billowed into the sky Saturday, May 7, residents could get a sense of the situation from webcams positioned around Keystone Resort. The cameras are intended to inform skiers about weather conditions before they drive up for a day on the slopes, but on Saturday they served a different purpose: curious community members got a closer view of the smokey situation.
Livestreaming devices like Keystone’s webcams could one day become standard equipment for spotting fires before they break loose and spread across the county. The federal government earmarked $10 million for the purchase and placement of real-time monitoring equipment for wildland firefighting as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law Nov. 15, 2021.
The act grants the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, who oversee the U.S. Forest Service, and in turn the Dillon Ranger District, the ability to purchase real-time monitoring equipment like sensors and cameras. Additionally, the act sets aside $20 million for the Forest Service to enter an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use its satellite program for wildfire detection.
The act states the monitoring equipment would be placed in high-risk areas or post-burned areas. Summit County doesn’t have any such equipment yet, although Colorado Department of Transportation cameras along state roads have been used before.
Camera tech is novel in Colorado, according to Wildland Fire Projects Manager Brad Schmidt at the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology in Aerial Firefighting. The Center of Excellence and U.S. Forest Service only began deploying cameras at fixed sites in 2021, and only a small handful exist across the state as part of a pilot project, he said. California began exploring the technology in the early 2000s and has thousands of cameras positioned across the state, he said. They can be positioned on radio towers and other high vantage points to view as much of the landscape as possible.
The center’s research involves pan-tilt-zoom cameras, capable of turning 360 degrees and zooming in targets miles away. Some companies have explored AI fire detection capabilities — and the Aspen Fire Protection District has been part of such pilot programs — but the technology is new and capable of mistaking smoke for clouds, Schmidt said. When used correctly, however, three or more cameras working together can identify smoke, triangulate the position of a fire and help notify the proper fire protection district.
The main benefit of cameras to fighting wildfires is the ability to have eyes on a fire, Schmidt said. He said with dispatchers receiving several 911 calls that sometimes contain conflicting reports, the ability to see a fire from one’s desk is a huge benefit. It clears up ambiguity.
In the White River National Forest, most detection comes from public reports through 911, ground crews on patrol and scheduled air-reconnaissance, David Boyd said. The U.S. Forest Service will send out patrols when and where it expects a high likelihood of ignition. Incoming lightning storms are one example, Boyd said. Patrols will venture out on foot to a high vantage point or strategic overlook to try and spot smoke. Air-recon teams may support them from manned helicopters and airplanes.
Unfortunately, lightning fires can smolder almost smokeless for days after a storm, Boyd said. Patrols may need to monitor an area for days following a storm.
At the moment, officials with White River National Forest are unaware of plans to add real-time monitoring equipment. Schmidt also did not know when Colorado would implement the technology on a robust scale. More pilot programs are likely, and more kinks need ironing out.
The act has no specific timeline, although the funds allotted are slated for the fiscal years 2022 through 2026.