february 2015

In 2007, the Alberta (CA) government asked researchers at FPInnovations to develop a camera system that would allow a fire lookout operator to monitor areas that are blocked from view by terrain features. Using a portable, collapsible tower, an FPInnovations researcher designed and installed a camera system that proved to be an effective complimentary detection tool. The system continues to be used at the Chisholm fire lookout and a second system is under development.

On May 23, 2001 a wildfire started ten kilometres (six miles) south of the hamlet of Chisholm in Alberta, Canada. An oil?industry worker spotted the fire and reported it to the Chisholm fire lookout at 9:35 PM. A crew of eight wildland firefighters arrived at 10:40 PM to a ten-hectare (twenty-five-acre) fire.

High winds and very dry conditions thwarted their efforts. By 11:30 PM, the fire blew up. Additional suppression resources continued to arrive during the night, but by early morning the fire had grown to over 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres). The Chisholm Fire went on to burn 104,000 hectares (257,000 acres) and is Alberta’s fifth largest wildfire since 2000 with the province spending C$10 million on firefighting alone. No lives were lost, but the fire destroyed ten homes, a trapper cabin, forty-eight outbuildings, and several vehicles. The fire severely disrupted the lives of residents, and the loss to local industry (forestry, oil and gas, railway, power) was substantial. The fire started only sixteen kilometers (ten miles) from the Chisholm fire lookout, but the operator could not see the fire start because a low ridge blocks that area from his view.

Fire lookouts are an essential part of Alberta’s wildfire detection program with lookout operators detecting approximately 30% of wildfire starts each year. The province operates 127 fire lookouts from April to October and each lookout operator is responsible for locating and reporting wildfires within a 40-kilometre (25-mile) radius, or 5,027 square kilometres (1,940 square miles). Although fire lookouts are placed with the best possible vantage, terrain features invariably block many areas from the lookout operator’s view. In many cases, about half of a lookout operator’s responsible area is classified as “not visible”. The hamlet of Chisholm and the origin of the 2001 Chisholm Fire lie in the heart of one of the Chisholm fire lookout’s blind areas. This blind area, and others like it, is a constant concern for the Alberta wildfire detection program.

In late 2007, Jim Thomasson—a researcher with FPInnovations—embarked on a project with the Alberta government to provide a live video feed of a blind area to a display monitor in the nearest fire lookout. The challenge was twofold: the system had to reliably transmit images with high enough resolution so a lookout operator could detect smoke; and it had to allow the lookout operator unrestricted control of the cameras.

Exploring the blind area where the 2001 Chisholm Fire originated, Thomasson found a third-party communication tower that, once equipped with a video camera, would add 136 square kilometres (52 square miles) of visible area to the fire lookout operator. A temporary agreement between FPInnovations and the tower owner allowed Thomasson to equip the tower with two dome video cameras, a digital encoder, and a radio transmitter. He then equipped the fire lookout with a radio receiver, a digital decoder, two display monitors, and a camera control panel.

Video monitor in a fire lookout.

The final piece of the puzzle was to get the signal to clear that low ridge. Thomasson leased a self?supporting telescopic portable steel lattice tower that, when fully extended, reached to twenty metres (sixty-six feet). Thomasson anchored the portable tower on the ridge where it could relay the signal from the video tower down in the blind area to the fire lookout nine kilometers (six miles) away.

The equipment at both the video tower and the fire lookout ran on 120V AC line power. Because of the portable tower’s remote location, Jim installed two solar panels and a backup diesel generator. Initially, Thomasson used a 2.4 GHz radio system to transmit the signals. The system worked, but image quality was mediocre and the camera controls were sluggish. Thomasson switched to a 35-metre (115-foot) portable tower and a lower radio frequency (900 MHz)—image quality and camera controls improved significantly.

During the first year of the project, the system was plagued with frequent interruptions and was available only 60% of daytime detection hours. Jim painstakingly addressed the numerous integration issues and by the end of the first season, the system was operating at 100%.

At the end of 2008, the agreement to use the third-party tower had expired and wasn’t going to be renewed. Thomasson believed that a strategically-placed, camera?equipped portable tower could provide the same coverage of the blind area while allowing a direct signal to the fire lookout—eliminating the need for a signal relay. In early 2009 FPInnovations purchased a portable tower that was 33 metres (108 feet) when fully extended and more robust to support the added weight of the cameras and related equipment. Thomasson deployed the portable tower on the ridge eleven kilometres (nine miles) from the fire lookout and continued to use a 900 MHz radio frequency.

A 33 meter (108 foot) portable tower cam extends a fire lookout’s vision.

The advantages of cameras on a portable tower were significant. Because the tower could be lowered, it eliminated the need for a technician certified in tower-scaling to install and service the cameras. And eliminating the relay improved image quality and camera control without changing the radio frequency. Finally, the simplified system meant fewer integration issues and quicker troubleshooting.

To test the system’s capability, Thomasson placed a smoke-generator in the blind area and created ten distinct smokes. The lookout operator could not see the smokes from his lookout, but he could pinpoint them in the live video that was transmitted to a display monitor in his cupola. Smokes were placed near the camera tower and far, forcing the lookout operator to zoom the cameras in and out over the area. Although it took longer for the operator to detect smokes that were farther away from the cameras, he found them all within thirty seconds of smoke release. It took five minutes or more for the smokes to drift above the ridge and into view from the lookout.

Once the system provided reliable coverage of the blind area, Thomasson had to determine whether the technology helped or hindered the lookout operator perform his routine detection duties. At the user’s end, the system is fairly simple. With just a little hands-on training, the Chisholm lookout operator quickly felt confident with the technology and used it frequently, increasing his overall detection hours. By having an additional display monitor in his cabin, the lookout operator found himself checking the cameras earlier in the mornings and later in the evenings. He felt strongly that the technology complemented his detection duties.

Thomasson continues to set up the portable camera-equipped tower system for the Chisholm fire lookout each fire season. Unlike the early days of the project, the system now essentially runs on its own, requiring very little support. Although it rarely occurs with a 900 MHz frequency, the radio links can still be disrupted by heavy rain, snow, hail, or swaying trees. Jim has trained the lookout operator to remotely reset the link from his lookout, and the system is back up and running within seconds. At the end of each fire season, Jim collapses the tower and tows it to a storage yard.

Despite the relative self-sufficiency of the system, keeping the camera domes clear of dust, cobwebs, insects, and water spots is an ongoing challenge. Dirty camera domes are a problem for smoke detection; at certain sun angles and lighting conditions a lookout operator could mistake a spot on the camera for a smoke and spend valuable time trying to confirm it, or he might dismiss a real smoke believing it to be a spot. So the tower is periodically brought down to clean the camera domes. Also, as the operator gains experience with the technology he is able to confidently discern smokes from spots on the dome.

The portable camera-equipped tower system has been a success. In the past three years, the Chisholm lookout operator has used the system to detect six fire starts within his blind area. The lookout operator finds the system particularly useful for monitoring fire permits. Just this past year he suspected that a permitted smoke was becoming too large. He called it in and the fire crew arrived to find the fire had crept into the adjacent timber and had gotten out of hand. Without this “eye” in the blind area, this fire may have gone undetected until it was much larger and a potential risk to the hamlet of Chisholm.

The Chisholm fire lookout is the only one in Alberta currently using a portable camera-equipped tower system to help with smoke detection, but Alberta sees great value in using this technology for its other lookouts with high-risk blind areas. Thomasson has started putting together a second system for the province and he expects to roll it out in 2015.

AUTHOR | Colleen Mooney is a researcher and writer with the Wildfire Operations Program at FPInnovations. She lives in Fernie, British Columbia, Canada.