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Big Sky, Big Data: Mont. Area Pilots AI for Wildfire Defense

The Big Sky Fire Department, located in the community of Big Sky, Mont., is testing out Pano's AI wildfire detection technology to help increase fire visibility and improve response efforts.

Lone Peak 1.PNG
Pano AI increased visibility in the case of the Shedhorn Fire near Lone Peak.
(Photo courtesy of Pano AI)
Wildfire response for Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) in the community of Big Sky, Mont., might be forever changed thanks to a pilot involving Pano AI technology.

The use of AI for wildfire detection and response has already been implemented in places like Sonoma County, Calif., and Aspen, Colo. As modern wildfires break records, fire departments are exploring how technology can improve defense strategies.

For the Big Sky pilot, a single 360-degree rotating camera was deployed on top of Lone Peak. An adopter of this tech receives a subscription to Pano AI’s feeds and software that can be used by multiple individuals, explained Sonia Kastner, Pano founder and CEO.

A machine-learning component allows the system to become increasingly accurate at detecting minor differences in movement between smoke, haze and fog.


The technology was deployed during September and soon detected the Shedhorn Fire about 13 miles away from downtown Big Sky.

The Shedhorn Fire was located on the Custer Gallatin National Forest between Big Sky and West Yellowstone.

“It was one of those incidents that [BSFD] dreaded, which is an incident that strikes in the mountain areas inside the ridges and is really hard to spot,” said Pano Chief Commercial Officer Arvind Satyam. “We were able to detect that incident very quickly through the AI.”

As BSFD Deputy Chief Dustin Tetrault explained, the department planned to test the AI and camera through the open burning season to see how the technology worked with permitted burns. About a week after installation, the technology had already proven its worth with its view of the Shedhorn Fire.


While there is only one camera, it does offer a 360-degree view from Lone Peak. Kastner said the range of the camera's view can vary based on factors like camera placement and weather conditions like fog.

Kastner noted that on a clear day, the cameras can allow one to see over 20 miles. However, the company recommends a spacing of 10 miles between camera stations.

Satyam underlined the value of the cameras’ ability to provide an optical zoom function with 30x granular visibility on an incident. This function can also help protect nearby areas, like Yellowstone National Park.

Satyam also noted the potential for triangulation with this technology when there are multiple cameras, stating that cameras can be added to the network to provide more precision in locating a fire.

Finally, Satyam emphasized the role of the intelligence center, where potential incidents are prescreened by humans.

As Tetrault explained, anytime BSFD receives a 911 call about a fire, the department will send out resources. The technology from Pano, however, provides another layer of situational awareness about what resources are being sent and where.

“It’s almost like a virtual lookout,” Tetrault said. “Just having an extra situational awareness, for us, is invaluable.”


Pano’s technology is being piloted in several locations in the western U.S. The location for this pilot is unique because Big Sky is not a municipality but an unincorporated area, according to Tetrault.

Big Sky is also a ski community, known for Big Sky Resort and surrounding ski lodges like Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks, all of which came together with BSFD to fund this mutually beneficial tech adoption.

“We mapped out high fire risk areas of the country, which really led us towards the west coast of the U.S.,” Satyam explained. “The next thing that we also looked at was innovative partners.”

Tetrault said the resort and lodges were on board from the start based on the potential to protect developments and potentially save lives.

He said that increasing focus on risk assessment in recent years led the department to look to how available technology could help mitigate the risk — especially as the community is steadily being developed, with between 150 and 200 construction permits being approved per year.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.