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AI aids Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District in early blaze detection

 Deputy Fire Chief Mike Wagner starts a morning at the fire station.
Hattison Rensberry
Deputy Fire Chief Mike Wagner starts a morning at the fire station.

Fire departments throughout the Western Slope are finding ways to keep up with the mounting fire dangers as communities living in the Wildland Urban Interface grow. One of these new tools is Pano A-I, an artificial intelligence designed to spot small fires before they can become a serious problem. Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District now have access to such technology, along with Pitkin County Fire and Glenwood Springs Fire Department. KDNK’s Hattison Rensberry spoke with Deputy Chief of Operations Mike Wagner about how the new software works.

"Wagner: Pano AI is a couple of cameras that are installed up on radio towers here in Crystal Valley, where we actually have a few up valley in Pitkin County. Holy Cross has paid for one to be up on Sunlight Mountain, so it's the cameras, but then it obviously takes with the name “AI”, Artificial Intelligence that is used for early detections of wildfires. What it does is it scans the sky 360 degrees. There's actually two cameras, one on each end of the tower, and then what it does is it detects, also helps verify and classify in real-time various smoke alerts. So what'll happen is, say there's a lightning strike out in the woods and then lights a tree on fire. Pano AI scanning the the horizon and then it'll see the smoke rise up. It will set out an alert to augment the AI. It will also go to a person to look at it and once it's verified that it could be a smoke or a fire, we will get an alert at the fire department on our phones. And then we will look at that and then we can send a crew out to check it out and see what's going on.

Rensberry: So this sounds like something that would get a handle on fires before they become big enough that people would be calling you with concerns about smoke.

Wagner: If we can keep a fire small, that's extremely important. 'cause the bigger they get, the harder they are to put out. And that's actually one motto that we actually have at Carbondale Fire in the summer is to keep small fires small. But this Pano AI will help augment our summer programs. We are a leader in this, in the state of Colorado to actually send out what we call initial attack patrols or severity patrols. In the summertime, some of our residents here in Garfield County, specifically in Carbondale, in Missouri Heights, and up towards Marble, you'll notice we have trucks driving around in the summer and, their main responsibility is to keep small fires small. So we will track lightning strikes, we’ll scan the horizon and then if dispatch sends something out as well that there's a potential wildland fire, our patrols are already in the truck. They're out and about and then they will get out and help keep small fires small.

Rensberry: It sounds like Pano AI and those patrols are quite the investment. Do you wanna talk a little bit about that investment and how you justify that?

Wagner: Yes. We constantly at the fire department are always looking at new technologies, whether it's simple stuff like hoses or nozzles, or fire trucks. And we're always weighing the pros and cons of what we can do, what we can't do. But the camera actually helps augment, our summer program, which we hire some seasonal hires in the summer, which are usually volunteers that have been with us for a while. And then this Pano AI came around. But they are expensive. Extremely expensive actually. So they're roughly between $40,000 to $50,000 per year per site. So that's something that we’ve got to weigh with our taxpayer's money. Is this really worth it? Is it not? And we are excited about it. We've been on the fence, but we were actually extremely happy this year that the new owners of the Redstone Castle decided to fund the program this year. And then if the program goes well and we find benefit over the next few years, which I can't say that we probably won't see a benefit, he is, willing to pay upwards of five years to continue the program. Very exciting. But basically, we get an alert, a text message, and then we go ahead and pull it up. It has really high-resolution cameras that pick it up and that'll show us exactly where the smoke's at. If another camera in the area gets it, at the same time, it will triangulate the location so we can actually pinpoint exactly where it's at. It will also overlay onto a topographic map in the direction that the smoke's coming up, so we can take a look at it.

Rensberry: Let's talk a little bit about the installation timeline on the one up the Crystal. You said that the one over on Sunlight is already installed, already fully capable.

Wagner: We have a helicopter coming with the tower up on Elephant Mountain, which is basically halfway up the crystal between Carbondale and Redstone. There's a communication tower that has a great site line of pretty much the whole Crystal Valley. So Pitkin County Telecommunications owns the tower, they’ve been gracious enough to grant Pano AI access. So we got a helicopter to pick up the team from Pano and then actually pick up some Pitkin County telecommunications people to fly up to the site and install the camera.

Rensberry: What's it like as someone who serves the community, to have community entities like Holy Cross and the Redstone Castle who directly benefit from the tourism and the economy also making efforts to support your work to protect those communities?

Wagner: It's great. We're all in this together as we know, and we've seen over say the last decade or so that fires just become bigger, stronger, faster moving. So to have other people involved is awesome. 'cause again, we're in this together. Whether it's a homeowner, the fire department, business owners, the more we can all. Band together to help out is wonderful. Over the last year or so, we started what's called the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative between all the different entities in the valley to work on wildfire mitigation. Just kind of like another tool to help even that out as far as you know, what we can do as a community to lessen the risk of wildfires.

Rensberry: Is there anything else you'd like to share about this process or about the experience of getting these new tools?

Wagner: I would just, again, love to say gratitude towards Stefan, the owner of the Redstone Castle and his crew for supporting this. I know he's really big in community support and is really excited to, you know, help out the communities he can as the new owner of the Redstone Castle.

Rensberry: Awesome. Well, that's all I have for you, Mike. Thank you so much for coming in today. I really appreciate it.

Wagner: I appreciate it too. Take care."

Due to a weather delay, the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection is installing the new system on Tuesday. Safety information from the Fire Protection District can be found on their website: Carbondale Fire dot org

Information is available in English and Spanish, as well as links to sign up for local emergency alert systems.

Copyright 2023 KDNK.

Hattison Rensberry
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