Catching fire

The AlertWildfire program

A camera was installed on Slide Mountain in 2017, part of a system of remote mountaintop cameras that protect Lake Tahoe.

A camera was installed on Slide Mountain in 2017, part of a system of remote mountaintop cameras that protect Lake Tahoe.

courtesy/university of nevada, reno

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A system of remote mountaintop cameras helps protect Lake Tahoe by providing an early warning when wildfires first start smoking.

The AlertWildfire program, initiated by the University of Nevada, Reno, is rapidly spreading across the West. The 17 cameras operated at Tahoe and parts of the Sierra are now joined by others set up in Southern California and Idaho. More will soon be operating in Northern California’s Sonoma County, a site of deadly wildfires last year. “The first of many” will soon be on the job in Oregon, said Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory.

The goal, simply, “is try to make every fire smaller,” Kent said.

Back in 2013, Kent and colleagues attached the first cameras to seismic sensors in the Lake Tahoe area with the idea of providing a bird’s eye view of wildfires in their early stages. There are now nine such cameras in the Tahoe Basin, with two more planned. Another eight are situated at high-elevation vantage points in nearby parts of the Sierra and other mountaintop locations.

The system is monitored by fire agencies during fire season, with operators able to manually rotate, tilt, pan and zoom the camera of their choice. While the system is credited with first detecting some wildland fires, its biggest value is giving fire agencies the ability to quickly get a look at a fire once they know it’s burning, usually after the first 911 calls, Kent said. They can then determine, and quickly, what resources need to be assigned to the fire.

“The thing that is generally missing is ‘what do I need to put on this fire right away?'” Kent said. “If you don’t have these cameras, it’s a guess situation.You can know exactly what the scale is right away. There’s no delay.”

The WildfireAlert system showed its value last December in San Diego County at a time when Southern California was under fiery siege, Kent said. The Lilac Fire burned more than 4,000 acres and destroyed more than 150 structures, but because local fire officials could use the cameras to determine no other fires were burning at the same time in the immediate area, they could put maximum resources on the blaze and keep it from growing much larger, Kent said.

“Stuff like that has made this a popular thing to do and the right thing to do,” he said.

Had the cameras been functioning back in June 2007, there’s every chance the Angora Fire, which destroyed 254 homes outside South Lake Tahoe, might have been stopped early on, Kent said.

The system is a bonus when it comes to protecting Tahoe, said Heidi Hill Drum, chief executive officer of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, which has raised thousands of dollars to fund camera installation.

“A devastating fire to our region would hurt all of those things,” Drum said. “[The cameras] directly relate to our mission.”

Earlier this month, lightning storms ignited three small wildfires near Drum’s home in Meyers, California, just outside South Lake Tahoe and near the site of the disastrous 2007 Angora Fire.

Using one of UNR’s remote cameras situated at Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort to the west, firefighters were able to monitor the three lightning fires early on and assign firefighting resources accordingly.

Drum said she is often told by Tahoe fire officials how much they value the AlertWildfire system.

“It’s really been a resource for them,” she said. “It’s just one extra tool in the toolbox.” Ω