Sacramento, CA, USA — With red flag wild fire warnings expected this week, the California Department of Forestry is relying on a new camera system to help replace the bygone fire lookouts in the foothills.
The system called “Fire Hawk” is located on a 160-foot tower in Camino in El Dorado County. It is believed to be the only system operating in the entire U.S.
Rotating 360 degrees every four minutes, Fire Hawk can detect smoke both day and night. It snaps 23 different presets, or windows, in every direction. When smoke is detected, an alarm goes off at the CDF dispatch center where firefighters man zoom in and visually check the smoke trail. A computer mapping system is connected to the camera image, providing exact pinpointing of the smoke source.
“It can’t completely replace an experienced person in a lookout tower,” said CDF Captain Dale McGill. “But so far it’s helped us spot fires before the first calls come in.” Depending on visibility, Fire Hawk’s range is between 30 and 40 miles.
“We hoped it would help us spot fires but there was a bonus,” said CDF Chief Bob Holmes. “We can use the system to assess a fire situation. If it turns out we don’t have to launch air tankers, we save a lot of money.”
Holmes said it costs about $7,000 just to launch an air tanker loaded with fire retardant. If it is not needed, the load has to be dumped before the aircraft can return to land.
Budget cuts forced the closure of most lookout towers during the late 1990s. After that, CDF relied on people calling in reports of fire or smoke in the forest. Sometimes those locations weren’t accurate or the fire wasn’t as bad as described.
Fire Hawk was developed in South Africa. When Holmes spoke with others about ways to bolster early fire warning with the loss of fire lookouts, a friend told him about the detection system. With a $10,000 grant, the system was setup as a pilot program last August. The true test will come this summer as the system is in place for an entire fire season.
Fire Hawk is widely used in South Africa and some countires in South America. Several cameras are also operating in Canada.
While there are a few bugs with some false positives, firefighters say they can easily double-check the image. It also records the images so they can look back at them later.
Right now the only staffed fire lookout in the area is at Mars Peak between Truckee and Kings Beach. That lookout closes at 6 p.m. daily, however. “The camera is 24-7,” said Holmes. The infrared camera also picks up smoke or heat not visible at night with the naked eye.
CDF is considering a proposal right now to add three more cameras to the system. They would be installed at Heavenly Valley at Tahoe, Mt. Zion in Amador County and Pine Hill near Cameron Park.