Hot-spot-seeking cameras may help Utah detect wildfires soon after they start

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thermal cameras scan the foothills and mountains surrounding Layton for hot spots on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, as part of UTOPIA Fiber's new wildfire early-detection system.

Layton • Imagine a network of thermal-imaging cameras scanning the fire-prone Wasatch foothills 24 hours a day during fire season, looking for telltale heat patterns that signify the start of a wildfire.

Such a system is now being beta-tested in three Utah cities, thanks to a program developed by UTOPIA Fiber, Utah’s community-owned fiber-optic network, and unveiled Wednesday at Layton’s Valley View Golf Course, where the high-tech cameras have been affixed to a tower over the clubhouse.

Fire authorities along the wildland-urban interface usually don’t know about a blaze start until someone sees smoke or flames and dials 911, said UTOPIA Executive Director Roger Timmerman. If successful, the program could advance response time to such fires by several minutes, thereby saving lives, homes and thousands in firefighting costs.

“The EDWIN Project thermal-imaging cameras are so advanced, they can detect a hot spot down to a tiny pixel,” Timmerman said. “Once the cameras detect temperatures exceeding 300 degrees Fahrenheit — well before the first signs of visible smoke — data are instantly transmitted through the fiber lines to the fire department which can review and respond.”

An acronym for Early-Detection Wildfire Imaging Network, EDWIN started as senior thesis project by Brigham Young University students and then was taken over by UTOPIA, Timmerman explained, as a way to put connectivity to work making life better for Utahns.

Above him on a steel tower, two cameras were slowly panning back and forth, taking in a 15-mile swath of the scrub oak-covered foothills straddling the line between Davis and Weber counties east of the urban area.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roger Timmerman, executive Director of UTOPIA Fiber, speaks at the unveiling of UTOPIA's wildfire early-detection system (EDWIN), in Layton on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

“We’ve seen firsthand how devastating wildfires can be,” said Layton City Manager Alex Jensen, who heads UTOPIA’s board. “Now, with earlier detection, we can prevent a small problem from becoming a large one. Having a head start will save lives and property.”

UTOPIA is testing the system with tower-mounted cameras in Layton, Murray and Woodland Hills, three of the 15 Wasatch Front cities in UTOPIA’s network. Woodland Hills was selected as a test site because that Utah County city is one of the most at risk. Two years ago, the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires nearly overran the city and neighboring Elk Ridge.

Those lightning-sparked blazes, however, started high in the mountains several miles from Woodland Hills and were being monitored by the U.S. Forest Service for many days before winds pushed the flames out of the mountains toward subdivisions. EDWIN would have made no difference in how those fire were handled, but Layton Fire Chief Kevin Ward believes the system could give firefighters a big advantage for fires that start in the foothills, such as those that burned near neighborhoods over the past week in North Ogden and Mill Creek Canyon.

Fires originating in foothills tend to be caused by humans and can pose a significant threat to homes. When EDWIN detects a fire, it dispatches an alert to fire officials.

“I could actually have that link on my phone,” Ward said, “and view this camera.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Layton Fire Chief Kevin Ward speaks at the unveiling of UTOPIA Fiber's wildfire early-detection system (EDWIN), in Layton on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Officials with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said they welcome anything that would improve response times but were uncertain of EDWIN’s utility.

While wildfires’ social impacts are largest in the urban interface, agency spokesman Jason Curry suspects an early-detection system in populated areas would be less useful than in more remote areas, where fires can cook for hours, even days before anyone sees them. Such areas would be beyond EDWIN’s reach.

Curry sees greater promise in a different camera-based program already in place in Nevada and California, where dozens of cameras are mounted on mountaintops. They continuously scan remote backcountry and upload the images in real time for the public to monitor.

This program, called ALERTWildfire, is basically a digital version of the lookout towers the U.S. Forest Service relied on for decades. If it spots smoke in the feed, Curry said, authorities can be alerted.

“That’s more of a crowdsourced fire-detection system, and it has made a difference,” Curry said. “They have gotten some good saves. I would welcome any advances that come our way.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Jensen, Layton city manager, speaks at the unveiling of UTOPIA Fiber's wildfire early-detection system (EDWIN), in Layton on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

The return on investment for a detection system in Utah’s foothill communities may wind up being low because fires in these areas usually are reported promptly, he said.

“The time between ignition and when a fire is noticeable is going to be a minute or two,” Curry said. “In populated areas, we are getting people flooding with calls into dispatch.”

EDWIN has already shown itself useful in determining what is not a wildfire, according to Ward, saving crews the hassle of responding to what turns out to be a false alarm.

On the night of July 4, the chief received word of a possible fire in Adams Canyon. He pulled up the EDWIN feed on his phone and was able to determine the flashes observed in the popular canyon weren’t flames — but hikers’ headlamps.

Timmerman believes EDWIN could prevent 71 acres from being burned for every minute it advances a fire response, equating to $3,000 in reduced firefighting costs and up to $215,000 in economic loss, depending on the blaze’s location.

It costs up to $65,000 to equip a monitoring site. Covering the entire Wastach Front from Payson to Tremonton would take 30 to 40 sites, he said, and another 15 for the Wasatch Back communities from Heber City to Morgan.

“EDWIN’s early-warning system is so revolutionary we’ll eventually offer it to communities that aren’t part of the UTOPIA Fiber network, both inside and outside of Utah, as long as there’s fiber connectivity to move the data,” Timmerman said. “None of this would be possible without fiber connectivity. There’s an enormous amount of data that have to move seamlessly and instantly. The EDWIN Project shows that fiber connectivity can power technology to address community needs.”

The system is not yet capable of determining GPS coordinates of a fire start, but it can give authorities a good idea where to look.

“That’s kind of the next phase,” Timmerman said. “Deriving that information from two-dimensional images is very difficult, especially when an image is moving. If it was a fixed image and we were only looking at one area, we can figure that out, but we’re panning across a large area.”

Coming off one of its driest springs on record and faced with persistent gusty, hot weather, Utah is on pace to triple the number of wildfires and acreage burned in an average year. With all the fire activity expected this summer, it is likely EDWIN’s cameras will get a chance to demonstrate their worth.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A thermal camera used by UTOPIA Fiber's wildfire early-detection system, in Layton on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.