UNR AlertTahoe system adds cameras in anticipation of robust fire season | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Mike Wolterbeek
University of Nevada, Reno

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UNR AlertTahoe system adds cameras in anticipation of robust fire season

With a record mountain snowpack changing to a "robust," above normal, significant fire potential, wildland firefighting agencies are gearing up for another fire season — and the University of Nevada, Reno, is ramping up its AlertTahoe HD/4K fire camera system, which overlooks and helps protect dozens of western mountain ranges and hundreds of square miles of Nevada's Great Basin.

The University's Nevada Seismological Laboratory hasn't waited for the record Sierra snowpack to melt. It has already added two new mountaintop fire cameras to the 29-camera system, on 9,700-foot Slide Mountain on the east side of Lake Tahoe, giving wildland firefighting managers a panoramic view of the Truckee Meadows, parts of Washoe Valley, Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountain ranges.

The AlertTahoe project, in its third year, is and has been receiving community support from the Tahoe Prosperity Center and now, through the center, support from local Rotary International clubs, with members helping to fund and install the new cameras on Slide Mountain in the Carson Range.

"The Rotary clubs didn't just write a check; they actually came with us to the site on Slide Mountain, rode up in our over-snow vehicle and shoveled snow to dig out our building that had been buried in a 20-foot-deep snowpack," Kent said.

The Tahoe-Douglas Rotary, Tahoe-Incline, Incline Village, Tahoe City, Rotary Club of Truckee and Truckee Sunrise clubs participated in the Slide Mountain installation on April 29.

In the weeks following the Slide Mountain install, the Nevada Seismological Laboratory crew has installed two more cameras, one on Bald Mountain, California in the lower reaches of the Sierra Nevada to the west of Tahoe near Georgetown, California and one on TV Hill near Hawthorne in central Nevada. Both cameras are live and ready for wildland fire managers to use.

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The installation is the first of as many as 18 more cameras for the 2017 fire season, including some planned in Oregon and Idaho, as the successful, proven technology is adopted by forest and rangeland fire managers in other states. The University of Nevada, Reno's fire camera system is the only one of its kind in the nation using a private high-speed internet microwave communications system for real-time fire-spotting and monitoring. It covers the Lake Tahoe Basin and surrounding mountains, hundreds of square miles of northern Nevada's Great Basin and as far south as Bishop, California in the eastern Sierra.

Early wildfire detection

The cameras are used by wildland firefighting agencies for early detection, to spot and track fires, and for quicker, cheaper and more tactical response and suppression. Traditionally, fire managers would send planes to spot and monitor fires, which takes time and resources. They can now use the cameras in the areas of coverage to do the same, as if they were sitting on the mountaintop overlooking the fires.

Last fall, the fast moving Emerald Fire near South Lake Tahoe started at 1:16 a.m. Though no one was watching, the cameras picked up the first signs of the fire 14 minutes before the first 911 call came in, highlighting the need for an auto-detect capability.

"Public lands managers are seeing the value in having the rapid look at a fire, as soon as a whiff of smoke is spotted or the near-IR picks up the glare of flames at night," Kent said. "We can even track lighting strikes, then aim the cameras to see if a fire has started. We've been fortunate to have great partners, the BLM, U.S Forest Service and local agency support for land, tower access and funding."

The Seismological Lab, a public service department in the University's College of Science, continues to work with the Bureau of Land Management to expand its footprint of fire coverage in northern and central Nevada planning to add up to four more cameras this year to the current nine. Last year, the system helped fire managers get a rapid deployment of resources by being able to show the explosive nature of the Hot Pot wildland fire that at one point was burning at 10,000 acres an hour.

With the private, high-speed internet communications network in place, these sites easily adapt to earthquake early warning detection systems that can provide public notification of expected, potentially damaging ground shaking. The sites can also be used for environmental monitoring research and as extreme weather stations. The University is in a lead position nationwide developing the inexpensive, multi-use, high-throughput, research-grade Internet Protocol networks and expanding their use for all-hazard monitoring.

"No other system worldwide could actually compete to these standards, as far as we know," Kent said. "While we're helping other areas in the West adopt the system, we've also had interest from other countries."

The Tahoe Prosperity Center, a regional collaborative organization, has raised about $150,000 from donors for the system so far. Other areas slated for new TPC-funded cameras at Lake Tahoe this year are Zephyr Cove, Alpine Meadows and Martis Peak.