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Video cameras would let public track urban fires

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A video camera used to spot and track wildfires keeps watch over a California town. Photo from the University of California, San Diego.
A dozen cameras proposed for Jackson, Josephine counties

Local officials are hoping to have a dozen video cameras installed around Jackson and Josephine counties that would allow the public and firefighters to spot and track urban wildfires.

“It would be great to have it this summer. People are nervous,” said Michael Cavallaro, outgoing executive director of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, which is spearheading the proposal.

Fast-tracking the camera installation depends on whether the Oregon Legislature will allocate funding for the project. Otherwise, the Rogue Valley could have to wait on a slower Federal Emergency Management Agency grant application process, Cavallaro said.

“Each camera costs $20,000 to buy ― which is a pittance considering all the damage and expense and tragedy each person experienced with their house burning down,” he said.

The 2020 Almeda fire that started in Ashland and burned to the southern outskirts of Medford destroyed almost 2,500 homes, primarily in Talent and Phoenix. It was the largest loss of homes in a record-breaking year that saw 4,000 homes burn across Oregon.

With a Rogue Valley urban camera network, firefighters and members of the public could go to the ALERTWidlfire network at alertwildfire.org to watch for fire starts or see the location and movement of fires.

“Emergency personnel can login and direct the camera to focus more closely on that fire and coordinate firefighting efforts. It’s a nice package that serves professionals and the public at the same time,” Cavallaro said.

Depending on how close they are, some people watching a fire online might decide to evacuate even before evacuation alerts go out.

“If they see signs of fire, people can decide if they want to evacuate, so that could reduce evacuation bottlenecks,” Cavallaro said. “We had a lot of people trying to evacuate at once because information was hard to come by.”

Many people didn’t receive evacuation alert phone calls or texts when the Almeda fire broke out Sept. 8, 2020, during a scorching hot day with strong winds. Exit routes jammed and many people were unaware of the fire’s location until they saw flames approaching their homes.

Cavallaro said the cameras have a daytime range of about 50 miles and use infrared technology to see about 120 miles at night. They can be installed on existing towers, including those used for cellphone service and 911 communication.

A video camera catches images of flames approaching a San Marcos, Calif. neighborhood in January 2021. ALERTWildfire image

Many areas of Jackson and Josephine County are already under the watchful eye of an extensive camera system operated by the Oregon Department of Forestry. ODF is tasked with providing fire protection for many rural areas, including private timberlands and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.

Those ODF cameras do overlap many populated areas due to their wide reach, but the video they capture can’t be viewed by the public. Instead, ODF’s team of trained detection specialists keeps watch over the cameras, said Natalie Weber, public information officer for the ODF Southwest Oregon District.

The detection specialists watch for smoke and fire and provide information to firefighters, dispatchers and other professionals, Weber said.

She said ODF will have 16 camera sites with 32 cameras total by the end of this year after it completes two new sites. Pairing the cameras provides a 360 degree view.

Last Friday, a new pair of ODF cameras was installed on Mount Isabelle. They cover Applegate, Ruch, the town of Rogue River, Foots Creek and surrounding areas, Weber said.

ODF’s next installation will be on Onion Mountain in Josephine County. The two cameras there will cover eastern Grants Pass, the Interstate-5 corridor and the town of Rogue River, Weber said.

“We’re really excited to get some new cameras up this year. The more we can expand, the more effective and efficient we can be,” Weber said.

More cameras help eliminate blind spots created by the area's mountains and valleys, she said.

Weber said ALERTWildfire cameras will provide video that can be viewed by the public.

“It’s going to be another tool in the toolbox for public awareness,” she said.

Cavallaro said all jurisdictions in Jackson and Josephine counties have expressed interest in joining the ALERTWildfire urban camera network except Butte Falls. Much of the land in the rural Butte Falls area, which was damaged by the South Obenchain fire in 2020, is under the protection of ODF.

ODF cameras on a temporary tower in the Butte Falls area are going to get a new home on a permanent tower this week. Those cameras cover Butte Falls, Highway 140 and Medford, Weber said.

They provided views of the South Obenchain fire last year, she said.

Across the West, more communities are joining the ALERTWildfire network, which has cameras in other parts of Oregon plus California, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

A 2020 fire in California sends up a plume of smoke that is captured by a video camera.

The network started as a pilot program in the Lake Tahoe area in 2010 and has grown since then.

In 2018, the Camp fire tore through Paradise, California, destroying 18,800 homes, businesses and other buildings and killing 86 people. In the year following the fire, 300 cameras were added to the network in California alone, according to ALERTWildfire.

During the 2020 fire season, 300 more cameras were added in western states. Proponents hope to add more than 175 cameras this year, ALERTWildfire members said.

During the past five fire seasons from 2016 through 2020, the network has provided critical information on more than 1,500 fires, according to ALERTWildfire.

A video camera captures views of an air tanker dropping fire retardant. Photo from University of Nevada, Reno.

This year, the network has already seen use tracking fires in California and other states.

In January, a camera on the Coronado Hills provided a live view of the battle against the Comet fire in San Diego County. As flames and smoke bore down on homes and businesses, air tankers dropped lines of bright pink retardant on a ridgeline to check the blaze.

Partners in the ALERTWildfire network include universities, telecommunications companies, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, fire agencies, law enforcement, cities, counties, ski resorts and electric, gas and water utilities.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.