Tech Meets Nature: Remote System Monitors Wildfires

Fire officials for Idaho's Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest are testing a new system that’s been especially useful in keeping an eye on blazes that they choose not to suppress.

by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune / July 22, 2014

Fire officials on the Powell District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest are testing a new system that allows them to remotely monitor wildfires.

The district, in partnership with the University of Montana, has cameras mounted on two fire lookout towers and a third mobile camera that can be deployed in different locations as needed.

The cameras can be controlled by an operator at the Powell Ranger District who can use them for panoramic viewing as well as to zoom in and out. They are proving to be a valuable asset, said Matt Young, the fire management officer for the district.

He uses them to monitor fires and finds them especially useful in keeping an eye on those blazes that the agency chooses not to suppress so they play a natural role in the ecosystem. The agency monitors those fires closely, which often means sending an air patrol to do a daily flyover.

Now the cameras can tell Young whether or not the fire is active. If it's quiet, he can choose not to send an air patrol.

"It's been a good tool," he said. "We definitely reduce risk and save money."

But he doesn't see the cameras as a threat to the agency's historic reliance on human fire lookouts stationed on pinnacles throughout the forest.

"You can't replace the human eye and those cameras can't take a check-in from a wilderness ranger at 3 a.m.," he said. "So you can't replace the humans and they were never meant to do that."

Cameras are replacing humans in some parts of the West. The Douglas Forest Protective Association in southwestern Oregon got rid of its last human lookout in 2010 and now uses 12 cameras.

The cameras rotate and take a picture every eight seconds. Computer software compares the images and sends an alert to fire officials when it detects smoke.

"The auto-detection isn't quite there yet," said Kyle Reed, a fire prevention specialist with the association at Roseburg, Ore. "It still takes a human element to say yes or no, it is or isn't a fire."

During the heart of fire season, Reed said three to four people at any given time are monitoring computer screens from the association's 12 cameras and more pictures from 18 other cameras used by nearby agencies. The cameras use infrared technology to see at night and operators can select different filters to improve the image quality.

When a fire is detected by the software and confirmed remotely by a human, the system can also relay a location using geographic information system software.

Reed said a lookout tower that burned down started his agency down the road to remote cameras. It was going to cost $250,000 to $300,000 to rebuild the tower, and a lot of other lookout towers that were built in the 1940s were in need of significant maintenance. So the Douglas Forest Protective Association sought alternatives.

The camera systems, manufactured by EnviroVision Solutions of South Africa, cost $50,000 to $70,000 per location.

"So it's considerably cheaper to build a camera site than to build a lookout," he said.

The cameras also have the advantage of allowing fire managers to see what is going on instead of trusting the interpretation of a human lookout.

"What is a large column of black smoke to you might be different to somebody else," he said. "(Fire managers) can look live and judge a response based on what we are seeing."

Reed said there was resistance when the association first started experimenting with the cameras in 2008.

"It was new technology and it was taking the human element out of the lookouts," he said. "The history of fire lookouts in the fire service goes way back, but every year more and more people are getting convinced this is not only the wave of the future, but this is awesome technology."

©2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.