Artificial intelligence to help combat wildfires in Colorado’s San Miguel County

While Colorado’s wildfires are evolving to burn hotter, spread faster and reach farther, state officials combatting the natural disasters are evolving as well.

The Telluride Fire Protection District is partnering with the San Miguel Power Association and an artificial intelligence company – Pano AI – to use the technology to fight against wildfires, officials from the three groups announced Wednesday.

Pano AI combines existing fire-detection technology with artificial intelligence, using high-definition, 360-degree cameras, alongside satellite feeds and other data to detect possible new fires, Chief Commercial Officer Arvind Satyam said. Computers – backed up by humans – will monitor the video and data streams, alerting firefighters when wildfires spark.

The year-long pilot program will use four high-ground sites across eastern San Miguel County with two cameras per site, John Bennett, Telluride Fire Protection District Chief, said. The system should be up and running by early summer.

“We’re looking forward to utilizing this technology to better enhance not only our response model but also to reduce our risk profile as we respond to wildfires in the future,” Bennett said.

Not only will the AI detection system warn firefighters when wildfires ignite but it will also offer more information for prescribed burns, Satyam said. The San Miguel Power Association will also have access to fire data to make sure it can protect its electric grid and infrastructure.

The wildfire-detection system is new for eastern San Miguel County but not for Colorado, Satyam said. Pano AI has already partnered with the Aspen Fire Department and Boulder County, among others, and those systems started working late last year. The company also has cameras set up in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington as well as sites in Australia.

At each site the two cameras rotate every minute, looking to detect plumes in the air, Satyam said. The technology can differentiate between things like wildfire smoke and a cloud of dust kicked up by tractors on gravel roads.

Typically the cameras have a range of about 10 miles but in Colorado’s more mountainous terrain that range is closer to five miles, Satyam said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time training the system to detect smoke in mountainous environments,” Satyam said.

When a fire is detected by artificial intelligence, that data is double-checked by a human team before it’s passed on to emergency responders.

Should the pilot program work well, Bennett said he’d want to expand it to additional lookout sites further west.

“We’re really excited about getting this on the ground,” he said.

State officials repeatedly warned last year that Colorado could have faced its worst wildfire year in history but their fears never materialized. The Marshall Fire – the most destructive in Colorado – sparked in late 2021, following the massive Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires the year before.

Climate change is worsening wildfire conditions, causing the fires to burn hotter and spread wider. Rather than preparing for a wildfire season, Colorado officials say the risk lingers all year long now and they continue to question whether the state is prepared for the next massive fire.

Wildfire risk is made worse in Colorado – and across the West – by the ongoing megadrought plaguing the entire Colorado River Basin.

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