Mountain cameras help spot wildfires |

Mountain cameras help spot wildfires

by Mike Wolterbeek
University of Nevada, Reno
The view of the Canyon Fire from Bald Mountain in the Pine Nuts above Topaz Ranch Estates.

On the afternoon of Aug. 21, viewers got a front row seat to watch the Canyon Fire burning above Topaz Ranch Estates thanks to one of a network of mountain cameras on Bald Mountain.

As fire hazard has built through the summer, ALERTWildfire, a network of mountaintop cameras that helps fire managers spot and monitor fires over large swaths of land, has been on a frenzied pace to reach its goal of adding 300 cameras to the network in the Western U.S. by the end of the year. In the past three years the network has been involved with nearly 1,000 fires.

So far this year, ALERTWildfire crews installed more than 200 new cameras in hazardous fire regions, especially near the forest/urban interface, bringing the total to 230. What started as a pilot program, AlertTahoe, to protect the Tahoe Basin from catastrophic wildfire, now spans Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with the majority of cameras in Nevada and California at this point.

This brings the total ALERTWildfire cameras to 265 across five states. The project should hit 200 new California cameras in September with Nevada in second place with 28 cameras.

The 21st Century fire-spotting technology gives firefighters a birds-eye view of the surrounding landscape, able to spot fires day and night, to provide valuable intel that can reduce response times and help fire managers deploy resources to where they are needed most during a wildfire.

“We can see second by second what’s happening 24/7/365,” Graham Kent, Nevada Seismological Lab director and creator of the mountaintop fire camera system, said. “The old way of doing business, putting people on top of a mountain to look for fires, might still work to a good degree, but this new technological approach is tough to beat.”

The system features high-definition pan-tilt-zoom cameras that rotate 360 degrees, giving real-time information 24/7 using near-infrared technology, all coupled with private microwave networks and internet. Cameras can see from 40 to 60 miles during the day and 80 to 100 miles or more at night.

“With our extensive partnerships, we’ve figured out how to install dozens of cameras in a single month,” Kent said. “Our goal of 300 new fire cameras by years end in California looks like it could become a reality. Besides California, our efforts to scale up in other states are underway.”

Fire officials are able to control the cameras remotely from their computers or phones and have even been tracking controlled burns around the Tahoe basin and elsewhere. Kent said the cameras are a critical help in spotting wildfires as early as possible so fire crews can respond and assign resources before the fire is out of control.

“The camera network is another tool in the toolbox for firefighting managers, not only do they use it for early detection and confirmation of fire reports, they use it to help mobilize and distribute resources for the firefighting effort,” Kent said.

The fast-growing network would not be possible without the support of elected officials endorsing the many partnerships and collaborations with public land use agencies, utility companies, communications companies and of course fire agencies – 46 partnerships in all to date.

The public can also access the live camera views on the ALERTWildfire website, which also links to their YouTube channel.