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Colorado won’t get new cameras this year to scan for wildfires

 Wildfire smoke above Leadville makes the sun appear a dark shade of red in 2021.
Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
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Wildfire smoke above Leadville makes the sun appear a dark shade of red in 2021.

Colorado lawmakers said last month the state was going into the summer with the “most aggressive and most resourced” fire response team it has ever had. They are expecting a new helicopter and more air tankers to help fight blazes.

But lawmakers are canceling a plan to start testing a network of high-definition thermal cameras that other states have been using to instantly detect fires before they get out of control.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said Tuesday he was not able to find the $2 million to pay for the new camera program this year.

He also blamed Republican filibuster attempts that started Monday on other bills as a reason the camera program cannot advance before the legislative session ends Wednesday.

“That's definitely too bad but there are many other wildfire-related bills that have passed and are passing which is good,” Roberts said.

The proposed cameras got rave reviews when lawmakers held a hearing about the proposal in February.

Neil Driscoll helps manage a wildfire detection camera program from the University of California in San Diego. He told lawmakers California has more than 1,000 of them and the technology was a “game changer” for first responders.

“In the incipient phase we can fight fire, we can be on the offense, but once these catastrophic fires get out of control, we’re on the defense and we start to evacuate,” he said. “What used to take maybe 30 minutes to confirm a fire by sending an engine or an aircraft now takes minutes with the cameras.”

Driscoll said they have detected fires faster than people can call 911 to report them. He added that the cameras could be moved around to places most at risk of fires and could spot a blaze from 120 miles away at night.

The bill to create a similar program in Colorado had bipartisan support and was being pushed by lawmakers from the West Slope.

“Combined with all the other technologies and all of the other things Colorado is investing in, this could help right away,” said state Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. “That’s what I’m about, faster initial attacks…This is a way we can use artificial intelligence to the benefit of mankind.”

The measure passed unanimously at its first hearing on Feb. 28, but it hasn’t had another hearing since.

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