Mountaintop cameras spot wildfires early

Published: Apr. 27, 2018 at 6:30 PM PDT
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July 2013, firefighters were responding to a big fire burning in the Pine Nut mountains east of Carson Valley. It took a thousand of them and several days to bring it under control and limit its size to 24,000 acres.

It was also the first time they and the general public got a different view of the fire, captured by a camera on Snow Valley Peak in the Carson Range.

April 26, 2018, this same camera confirmed the sighting of the Diamond Fire near Woodfords, helping fire agencies to jump on it early with the right number of personnel and equipment stopping it while it was small.

It was only the latest success story for this system which was initially launched as an addition to sites installed by the University of Nevada Seismological Lab to monitor earthquakes.

Cameras were added to these sites, linked through the internet and made available to fire agencies and the general public. It's grown from there.

"It's only been a short five years and we're trending toward 100 cameras and potentially a lot more," says the Seismological Lab's director, Dr. Graham Kent.

The original system, called Alert Tahoe, is now incorporated into what's called Alert Wildfire and it's expanding into Oregon, southern Idaho and the San Diego area where, in December, it helped spur a quick response to the Lilac Fire, which burned 4,000 acres, but could have been much worse.

In some instances, the general public has caught first sight of these fires logging onto

and reporting them, but the greatest value comes from giving experienced fire agency managers an early look at a fire, tailoring and guiding their initial response and monitoring, even predicting, a fire's progress.

As effective as it's been, there are still huge areas of the state and the rest of the West that aren't covered.

"We have some of the highest hazards and no cameras," says Kent. "So that's one thing that we're trying to do is not only put them everywhere, but as we put them everywhere, where are those four or five spots in Nevada that really need to have some cameras?"

And there are mountain tops out there, many with developed communication sites on them that only need the addition of a camera, a cost of a few thousand dollars. The challenge now, Kent says, is finding those partners and the funding.

Kent sees the system expanding in the next few years.

"It kind of has to. Do we have a choice at this point? The question is: How do we put out 500 cameras in California? How do we put out 150 cameras in Nevada over a year or two? If you don't do that, you're not being responsible."