High-Definition Cameras Help California Fire Lookouts

High-definition cameras attached to communications towers are being used to spot and assess wildfires in California.

by / March 16, 2010

As a first responder, Bob Patton appreciates the value of having as much information as possible before responding to an emergency. And as the El Dorado National Forest fire chief, Patton sees how communication holes can lead to safety hazards and added expenses.

In hopes of keeping those hazards and expenses down -- especially during California's ongoing budget crisis -- the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) have recently teamed up to keep a closer eye on one of the state's most precious natural resources: its forests.

In the largest project of its kind in the United States, the fire management agencies are testing a program to spot and assess fires using high-definition cameras mounted atop communications towers that are sometimes unstaffed. The goal? "To size up a fire and be more effective in dispatching," Patton said.

About two years ago, when state budget cuts started resulting in unstaffed fire lookout towers, Cal Fire applied for a grant and "solicited competitive bids for a system that uses tower-mounted, high-def video cameras and microwave wireless links to monitor wildland fire activity," according to an Exalt Communications press release.

Using the El Dorado National Forest as its pilot location, the three cameras allow Cal Fire dispatchers in the Camino Interagency Command Center (ECC) to view forest land, better aiding dispatch communications with firefighters.

"We have lookouts with human beings, and a lot of time these lookouts do not have a lot of fire experience," said Patton, adding the cameras act as a "second eye" in detection efforts. "We can use the tool to save money, by not launching the aircraft, or by launching and keeping (destroyed) acreage down."

The cameras use a microwave backhaul system, through Exalt Communication's partner Vicom Wireless of Sacramento (which won the project), to deploy the outdoor systems configured for the 5.8 GHz frequency band, the release said. The systems provide 200 megabits-per-second Ethernet capacity over distances of up to 26 miles.

Savings will be seen on many levels, Patton said, including the flying of aircrafts carrying fire retardant, which may or may not be needed depending on the severity of the fire threat. So far the technology has "worked out great," Patton said, and there are plans to add more high-definition cameras throughout the state, with the Lake Tahoe Basin on the top of the list.

But as can be the case when humans interfere with Mother Nature, there have been a few bumps in the road, Patton said. Namely the Mount Danaher camera was taken out by lightning in summer 2008. It's since been replaced, but other problems later plagued the program -- birds and critters chewed through the wire insulation, he said. That also has since been resolved with cable insulation.

"The camera gives the dispatcher a better perspective of what's going on," Patton said. "This will give responders more intelligence than the lookout will provide."


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.