Pitkin County board ponders wildfire detection cameras
Commissioners consider program that relies on artificial intelligence algorithms and video to detect possible fires, then alerts local fire officials
Pitkin County commissioners expressed interest Tuesday in a pilot program that would use cameras and artificial intelligence to quickly detect and respond to wildfires.
If approved by the board, a Silicon Valley-based company called Pano would install high definition cameras capable of scanning 360-degrees every minute on four Pitkin County-owned communications towers between July and November to try out the wildfire detection system, according to a presentation Tuesday by company and local fire officials at the commissioners’ regular weekly work session.
“I’m in favor of this,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “I think this is useful.”
Details of the program must still be worked out with the county attorney’s office before the board votes to allow the cameras to be installed. The board may receive an update on the process June 22.
Before last summer, the largest wildfire in Colorado history was the Hayman fire, which burned about 137,000 acres in 2002. During the summer and fall of 2020, approximately 719,000 acres burned in Colorado, including the East Troublesome Fire in October that destroyed 120,000 acres in a single day, according to Jake Andersen, deputy chief of operations for the Aspen Fire Protection District and a memo to commissioners from Jeff Krueger, telecommunications manager.
The Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon, which began in early August, burned nearly 33,000 acres.
The Pano program is designed to quickly identify wildfires through the use of cameras and artificial intelligence algorithms so resources can be directed to a fire as quickly as possible, according to Krueger’s memo. The cameras, which would run 24 hours a day and seven days a week, can see 10-to-15 miles and possibly more on a clear day and have a zoom feature as well to help triangulate a fire’s location, said Arvind Satyam of Pano.
The system can detect 95% of fires in under 15 minutes, Rafi Sands, another Pano representative, said Tuesday. In addition, all intelligence first goes to the Pano company so technicians can determine whether an alert is a false positive before it is sent to a fire department, Sands said.
In the case of Pitkin County, the Aspen Fire Department would first receive any alerts of a fire, said Fire Chief Rick Balentine. The cameras would be installed on towers located on Upper Red Mountain — a 40-foot tower — as well as on Ajax, Jackrabbit at Snowmass and the Williams tower, which are all 60-foot towers with 360-degree views, according to Tuesday’s presentation.
The real-time intelligence the system is designed to provide means an early response that could be key to controlling a fire before it turns into a megafire, Balentine said. The pilot program also will help train the artificial intelligence to learn more about what wildfires look like as opposed to haze or fog, he said.
Andersen said it’s the first time in his career he’s seen a viable and useful camera detection system.
Commissioners Steve Child and Francie Jacober said they liked the pilot program idea.
“This seems like amazing technology,” Jacober said. “I hope we don’t bring in too much red tape.”
The pilot program presentation came on the same day that Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo announced that Stage 1 fire restrictions in the county would go into effect Wednesday. That means no campfires outside metal grates in developed campgrounds, no fireworks and no smoking outside except in areas cleared of flammable brush. Garfield and Eagle counties also announced Tuesday they would move to Stage 1 restrictions starting Friday.
Hot, dry and windy weather seen in recent days in Aspen and around the Roaring Fork Valley is expected to continue for 60 days, DiSalvo said.
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Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon is expected to remain closed due to potential structure damage underneath the eastbound lanes.