Smoke from the Marshall Fire as seen from Sombrero Marsh in Boulder on Dec. 30, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Algorithms are scanning for smoke in Boulder County.

Part of a six-month trial period, Boulder is seeing how three cameras, backed by artificial intelligence, can help fire districts manage their fire-prone landscapes.

Made by a company called Pano AI, each camera cost $25,000. That initial investment includes the AI system, intelligence center service and hardware. Repairs are also covered. Boulder County bought one, the City of Boulder another, and Xcel Energy picked up the tab for the third. 

“It’s fairly expensive,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division Chief. “But it’s all about priorities.”

The cameras, also in use in California, Oregon, Montana and Aspen, are installed on existing radio towers selected for their view of the surrounding landscape. Two are already online and scanning — one near Eldora ski mountain and another in the Lee Hill area. A third, coming online in the next few weeks, will be on Mount Thorodin.

Yet installation isn’t as simple as plopping them on a radio tower and letting them run. There are pieces to dial in, including managing for privacy concerns.

“In an area like Lee hill, where there’s a lot of residences around, Pano will go ahead and pixilate — break up [certain parts of] the image — so we aren’t looking into homes,” said Seth McKinney, fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s to make sure we’re not infringing on anyone’s privacy unintentionally.”

Taking a complete panoramic image every minute, algorithms analyze photos of Boulder’s foothills for signs of fire. According McKinney, the tech is smart enough to distinguish between smoke and smoke doppelgängers, like clouds and fog — something citizens aren’t always able to do.

“Those light patches of fog that come up after a rain storm,” McKinney said, “those get called in as smoke a lot.

“Nine out of 10 smoke reports are false,” McKinney continued. “They end up being nothing. But regardless, we’re sending the same response.”

These false reports can be a suck on departments’ energy and resources. Combatting this waste is a hope shared by Oliver and McKinney.

“It really helps us gain fast situational awareness,” Oliver said. “A lot of times somebody reports smoke, and depending on how far in the back country it is, it’s several minutes to an hour before we get eyes on it and confirm that yes, this is a working fire and we need more resources. Or, we just spent a bunch of resources driving around for something that’s nothing.

“[Pano AI] is going to help us make more appropriate decisions,” Oliver continued. “We get that smoke report, we can instantly zoom in on the [image] and say ‘Yes, this is a fire, this is a priority, let’s launch an air tanker and a helicopter. Or, on the other side of that coin, we don’t want to have a bunch of people responding and tying up resources for a wild goose chase that’s not actually a fire.”

Location can also be difficult to pinpoint from on a phone call. With Pano’s cameras, however, should smoke be picked up by all three, they have the ability to triangulate and provide coordinates.

And because the cameras each take a 360 degree image every minute, there’s never any one user commandeering the camera to examine things in real time. Everyone with access to the data can examine the latest image without concern of control being yanked away, allowing for more county collaboration.

“We recognize that we don’t want to give access to these cameras to everybody, for a lot of different reasons,” McKinney said. “But we absolutely want to share the information with the right folks — fire districts, other responders — when we do have an active incident.”

The county’s trial ends in March. At that time, McKinney said they will assess keeping the current cameras and possibly expanding with another three to five. Ideally, all of the county would be under a watchful robotic eye. Most of the northern part of Boulder County is out of Pano’s reach — areas like Jamestown, Lyons and Alan’s park.

“We need to make sure we’re being fiscally responsible,” McKinney said of possible expansion. “But [we also need to] make sure the cameras provide enough coverage for what we’re looking for.”

In a county where wildfire haunts memories, where blazes are spreading less predictably as a consequence of climate change, new ways to combat flames are hard to pass up. 

“Boulder County has had more than its fair share of catastrophic wildfires,” McKinney said,. “Anything that can give us the edge of a faster and more appropriate response, I’m willing to try it.”

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing about these new fire-fighting AI cameras, Tim. We live up Coal Creek Canyon and are thrilled that there will be a camera on Mount Thorodin soon. We see the top of it from our house. (I actually hiked with a group to the top of Thorodin about ten years ago.) We have wanted a camera for wildfires up there for years. If we want to find out when the Thorodin camera is operational, who would we contact? We did look at the Pano website, but not sure it would be posted there. Thanks again for your coverage of wildfires and related issues ~ Barb

    1. Per Seth McKinney, the Mount Thorodin camera came online the end of last week. All three cameras are now operational.

Leave a comment
Boulder Reporting Lab comments policy
All comments require an editor's review. BRL reserves the right to delete or turn off comments at any time. Please read our comments policy before commenting.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *