Virtual Fire Lookouts

A group of Sierra foothill youths has dreamed up a project to install solar-powered video cams in Sierra forests to help detect fires. From the Sacramento Bee this morning:

Youths’ idea to spot Sierra fires will get global attention

By Chris Bowman, Sacramento Bee, March 8, 2009 [here]

Like many children in the Sierra foothills, Faith and Drew Oakes felt cheated by all the wildfires last summer.

The unheathful pall of dense smoke kept them indoors for weeks on end, when they otherwise would have been playing soccer and tennis.

Not long after the skies cleared, Faith, Drew and four other children from the Interstate 80 corridor communities of Newcastle, Auburn and Meadow Vista hatched a champion idea to help firefighters snuff out blazes before they smoke out communities. And the reward for ingenuity should more than make up for the children’s lost summer of 2008.

The group has been selected out of 13,000 youth teams from 40 countries to present their innovation at an upcoming Children’s Climate Call conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. They will compete against five similar youth teams worldwide for the chance to make their project a reality.

Locally, the team has presented its project to officials with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and – on Saturday – the California Licensed Foresters Association, at its annual conference in Sacramento.

The children’s idea is to post solar-powered video cameras linked to the Internet above the tree lines around the Tahoe National Forest.

They also would make available a free screensaver for computer monitors that would rotate multiple real-time views of the forest.

“While you are looking at these pretty photos, you’re also being a set of eyes for a possible fire,” Alejandro Vega, 12, explained Saturday to the foresters, who were all smiles and applause.

Any number of people on the Internet would become virtual fire lookouts, vastly supplementing the few volunteers who staff the three actual lookout towers in the Tahoe forest. …

Kudos to the kids. There are a few remote video cams in some national forests today, but more would be better.

Adults ought to be cognizant that it was a tragedy that these rural kids had to spend their summer indoors. Fires that should have been contained and controlled with rapid initial attack were allowed to burn. And prior to that, fuels management which would aid fire suppression and forest health has been glaringly absent.

A very perceptive comment was appended to the Sac Bee story:

lookouthistorian wrote on 03/08/2009 11:37:02 AM:

The youngsters have a great idea, however, there is a system currently in use in Southwest Oregon that uses cameras mounted on lookout towers or on steel towers at former lookout sites. These cameras are monitored at a central dispatch. when a “smoke” is detected an alarm sounds, then the person monitoring the screens can punch a few keys on a computer and pinpoint the location, also the programming can determine fuel types, area affected, access routes and a number of other important factors. And in many cases the fire crew is on the way before the smoke is visible to observers. The forestry officials need to check out “Forest Watch” or the Douglas FPA in Roseburg.

The problem is more of a policy of let it burn than detection. In Oregon, last summer, there were a number of “wilderness area” fires that “Legally” couldn’t be controlled, as result a large portion of the wildernesses were destroyed along with many acres of surrounding forest and weeks of dense smoke.

Another issue is that visual monitoring alone is not always sufficient. Forest fire smokes are difficult to detect, even to the trained eye in the lookout tower. It would be a good idea to compliment video cameras with a variety of other remote sensing devices that detect smoke and heat. Those should be coupled with additional satellite infrared and lightning detection and mapping systems.



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