Thermal cameras installed to help firefighters see through Caldor Fire smoke

Staff Report
The thermal camera atop the Heavenly Mountain Resort gives firefighters the ability to see through thick smoke that otherwise keeps them from tracking fire progress directly ahead of the fire. The photo shows the view on Saturday, Aug. 28, at 6 a.m. (Provided / UNR)

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A pair of thermal cameras have been installed to help firefighters see active flames through dense smoke caused by the Caldor Fire, officials announced Saturday morning.

Dense smoke over the past couple days have hampered firefighting efforts due to 100 to 200 foot visibility, fire officials said. The dense smoke has also affected air flight missions over the blaze.

Alert Wildfire crews from the Nevada Seismological Laboratory and DigitalPath, a wireless internet service provider based in Chico, California, installed the second camera Friday, Aug. 27, at Angel’s Roost at the top of the Heavenly Mountain Resort overlooking the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Sierra Nevada to the west.

The technicians installed the forward-looking infrared Teledyne camera with the immediate goal of providing high resolution imagery of active flames and spotting through thick smoke if the Caldor Fire spills into the basin.

Firefighters are attacking the fire to prevent it from damaging homes and structures south of Lake Tahoe and are trying to stop it from entering the basin.

With unprecedented fire conditions and smoke creating extremely low visibility and hazard to health, the 149,684-acre Caldor Fire is 19% contained and has caused more than 40,000 people to be evacuated with evacuation warnings just entering the Tahoe Basin.

The thermal camera data are on the Alert Wildfire camera page and are available to firefighters and the public to observe fire behavior.

Nevada Seismo Lab technical staff in the University’s College of Science are integrating the Teledyne camera data into the Alert Wildfire real-time website and streaming at DigitalPath’s site.

The other thermal camera in place for the Caldor Fire is located on the Mt. Danaher Alert Wildfire site between Placerville and Pollock Pines near U.S. Highway 50. Both cameras are on loan from Teledyne for wildfire response. DigitalPath also installed two Teledyne cameras earlier this month to track the Dixie Fire, providing intel during the burn-over of Greenville, California.

The thermal cameras augment the dozens of Alert Wildfire cameras that view the Tahoe area and the western slope of the Sierra foothills that U.S. Forest Service, CalFire, PG&E and other agencies are using during the Caldor Fire. They operate 24/7 with near infrared capabilities at night.

“With only zero to quarter-mile visibility from the thick smoke, firefighters can’t get close to the fire with aircraft and can’t follow the progress of the fire to mount an attack,” Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab and University of Nevada, Reno lead of the Alert Wildfire program said. “These two cameras should give a good view through the smoke for fire managers. It’s important to identify early any spot fires that jump ahead of the main fire or the fire front as it changes direction.”

Alert Wildfire is a network of over 900 specialized camera installations in California, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon used by first responders and volunteers to detect and monitor wildfires. Many of the cameras operate Nevada Seismological Lab’s private digital microwave communication network. The cameras also support critical evacuation and firefighting efforts by relaying real-time information when it’s needed most.

Alert Wildfire is a collaboration between three major universities: University of Nevada, Reno; University of Oregon; and University of California, San Diego. First responders and federal, state and local agencies use the strategically placed cameras 24/7 to protect people, homes and the environment.

The Tahoe Prosperity Center has been instrumental in finding funding for the cameras in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.