Colorado wildfires may be fought using artificial intelligence

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A firefighting vehicles turns off Broadway to head west up Linden Avenue on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022. As firefighters work the Sunshine fire west of Boulder. As of 3:45 p.m., the fire was estimated to be 18 acres. Meanwhile, a Red Flag Warning is in effect for Boulder, Larimer and Jefferson counties as dry and windy conditions raise the risk of wildfires spreading rapidly.

A year after the most destructive wildfire in the state's history scorched nearly 1,100 homes, Colorado lawmakers are considering joining other Western states by adopting artificial intelligence in hopes of detecting blazes before they burn out of control.

A proposal that legislators will discuss in a hearing Thursday would create a $2 million pilot program to mount cameras on mountaintops in high-risk locations. An artificial intelligence program developed by a private company would analyze the images and sounds from cameras with 10-mile radiuses in hopes of detecting something that could signal the start of a blaze.

It is part of an ongoing effort by firefighters to use new technology to become smarter in how they prepare and better position their resources. Fire lookout towers once staffed by humans have largely been replaced with cameras in remote areas, many of them in high-definition and armed with artificial intelligence to discern a smoke plume from morning fog.

There are hundreds of such cameras scattered across California, Nevada and Oregon, and even casual viewers can remotely watch wildfires in real-time.

Historic drought and recent heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West and scientists say warming weather will continue to make fires more frequent and destructive. Record-breaking storms that drenched California with more than 11 inches of rain in recent weeks and big snow dumps in other states have improved conditions in the short term, but the drought persists across most of Nevada, California and Utah, and large areas of other Western states, according to a Tuesday report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The goal with the Colorado program is for cameras and an AI algorithm to detect a plume of smoke and alert first responders who can stomp out the blaze before it grows, said Don Coram, a former Republican Colorado state senator who first backed the idea and encouraged this year's sponsor, Rep. Cleave Simpson, a Republican and rancher.

“Once these fires get into cresting in the tree tops, it’s going to take a lot of resources, a lot of manpower, and a lot of good luck to knock them down," Coram said.

Thursday's hearing will include testimony from a AI wildfire detection company called Pano AI. The company began working with cities, including the ski resort town of Aspen, Colorado, and has expanded to cities and counties in six states. Their stations include two cameras mounted on a high vantage point, rotating at 360 degrees and connected to the company's AI software. Each station costs roughly $50,000 every year.

Arvind Satyam, the chief commercial officer at Pano AI, said that the artificial intelligence uses a dataset of over 300 million images that teaches it what is smoke from a fire and what isn’t.

Once a camera signals that there could be a fire, the photos and information are run through the company’s intelligence center for human vetting — the algorithm could’ve mistaken a tractor’s dust cloud or even geyser for a smoke plume — before it’s sent along to fire agencies, he said.

AI has gained notoriety for breaking into a number of fields — from creating propaganda and disinformation to writing essays or cover letters about whatever the user requests.

David Blankinship, senior technology advisor for the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said fire agencies have come to rely on this type of detection technology, especially in California where the programs have been put to wider use.

"It loops around in a 360 all the time and searching for pixel changes that the human eye might not detect," said Blankinship, adding that “anything you can do to take time out of the response to that fire saves lives."

Still, Blankinship noted that “these cameras, even with AI, are only one component of the actual solution that is working."

That solution includes civilians calling in fires, other equipment such as smoke sensors, aircrafts that gather detailed information by flying over the burns, and even satellites providing broader information on a burn's size, Blankinship said.

All those systems, including cameras fitted with AI, allow fire authorities to model a wildfire and consequently better make difficult decisions about where and when to evacuate, how many engines to dedicated to a certain fire, or if burns should be extinguished at all.

To Coram, who will be attending the hearing on Thursday, the bill “just makes too much sense not to do.”

“I look around at all the rooftops that I can see, and think, ‘My god, when this catches on fire, what are we going to do?’” said Coram.