PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Researchers at the University of Oregon are working to install wildfire-detecting cameras across the state. They hope to have hundreds installed within the next couple years.
The cameras are part of the ALERTWildfire system, a network of cameras across the western United States that are helping local, state and federal agencies watch for wildfires. The program is run by the consortium of the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of San Diego and the University of Oregon.
“We’re trying to build an inter-operable camera system so that we can provide information to the public, but also to first responders,” explained Dr. Douglas Toomey, director of the Oregon Hazards Lab at the University of Oregon.
Toomey heads the University of Oregon’s involvement in the ALERTWildfire system. He said providing more advanced notice to the public is a major goal of the project. That’s why they’re all available online for people to monitor at any time.
First responders also have special access to them through secure, private logins. They can pan, tilt and zoom the cameras to better pinpoint where smoke is coming from and determine if it’s a fire.
“Perhaps someone calls in on 911 and reports something. It may not be a fire. They may report it on mountain top A when it’s actually location B, so by using the cameras, people can quickly turn the camera and decide is it a fire and how should they respond?” Toomey said.
He said the cameras are making a difference. Just a few weeks ago, he said Jackson County Fire District No. 3 used the cameras to confirm a fire on a property, called in helicopter support to douse the flames and the fire was out within an hour or two of discovery.
He said some days, the risk of wildfires getting out of hand is worse than others and they aim to help keep fires small on those bad days.
Currently, Oregon has more than 20 ALERTWildfire cameras installed throughout the state, but that’s nothing compared to the number in California, where Toomey estimates there are close to 800 or 900 cameras.
The program has been expanding over the last five years and Toomey only hopes to increase camera density until Oregon has the kind of coverage California has.
Right now, ALERTWildfire is building out its camera network in Central Oregon, Eastern Oregon and will soon add more cameras in Washington. Toomey said cameras in flatter parts of the state can cover a larger area than in hillier parts. Areas west of the Cascades will require more cameras due to the complicated terrain.
Camera installation is only possible if adequate funding is available. Toomey said the Bureau of Land Management is providing financial assistance over five years and some private companies, like utility companies and ski resorts, are sponsoring camera installation.
The state of Oregon provided $12.5 million to complete the ShakeAlert System, an earthquake early warning system that the Oregon Hazard Lab installs and monitors around the state, by 2023. The funding is also intended to accelerate the buildout of ALERTWildfire in Oregon.
Toomey said many ShakeAlert seismic monitors and ALERTWildfire cameras are in the same locations, along with multiple other hazard detecting systems. Toomey said installing multihazard technology is more cost effective and broadens stakeholder involvement.
He said if they’re already building a communications network to transmit data from a rural part of the state, it might as well be used for more than one form of hazard detection.
The Oregon Hazards Lab is known for bringing the newest technology to the state to help deal with potential natural disasters. Toomey said they’re pushing the envelope on discovering how technology can be used to protect the public, especially in the face of a changing climate.