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Wildfire camera installation on Smith Ridge
New camera atop EWEB tower will bolster wildfire early detection capabilities 06/28/2022

A new digital fire lookout tower will soon be able to spot small fires before they threaten communities and infrastructure in the upper McKenzie River Valley, thanks to a new ALERTWildfire camera installed Monday on a communications tower owned and operated by EWEB. 

The camera, which is mounted on an EWEB communications tower that provides radio communication for EWEB’s Carmen-Smith hydroelectric project, will provide a live feed viewable by anyone at www.alertwildfire.org. This is the first ALERTWildfire camera in the area impacted by the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire. 

ALERTWildfire is a project led by three universities, including the Oregon Hazards Lab at the University of Oregon, to provide cameras in wildlands that can help firefighters discover, monitor and contain wildfires. The first ALERTWildfire camera was installed in 2013 in Nevada, and the project now has more than 1,000 cameras across the American West. 

“Early detection, especially in remote areas with steep terrain, is important for both emergency responders and the public, so they have time to make plans to stay out of harm’s way,” said Jeannine Parisi, EWEB’s resiliency manager. “That’s why we’re working with the University of Oregon to provide the kind of long-distance visibility that any community member can access and quickly report if they see a wildfire.” 

EWEB is offering space on its tower – which provides radio communications for EWEB’s Carmen-Smith hydroelectric project – as part of the utility’s wildfire mitigation activities. EWEB’s Board of Commissioners reviewed the utility’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan in June and is scheduled to vote on it in July. The plan will then be submitted to the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, as required by law. 

Other elements of EWEB’s wildfire mitigation plan include inspecting power poles and pruning vegetation along 250 miles of power lines every year. EWEB is hardening infrastructure by replacing some wood poles with iron ones, changing the fluid in transformers to a less flammable material and consolidating the wires on poles to reduce the risk of sparking. In the coming years, EWEB will continue to enhance designs and construction techniques through a lens of wildfire mitigation to limit the risk of a fire igniting or damaging systems. 

“I'm really pleased to see the quick action installing more cameras using modern technology that will allow more eyes watching, and real-time visual access for firefighters to see what's happening and plan their response. This is one of a number of new cameras that will be added, and EWEB got on board right away. Oregonians will immediately be able to see the benefit of the new cameras,” said Rep. Nancy Nathanson (District 13).

On Monday, June 27, the wildfire camera was installed on top of the 190-foot-tall communications tower approximately 65 miles east of Eugene. Information technology company Elevate Technology Group installed the camera – its fourth wildfire camera in Oregon – for free. Elevate is also providing a backup internet connection on the tower. To install the camera, an Elevate crew member ascended the 190-foot tower to bolt on the camera, spending 4 to 6 hours off the ground. The Elevate team rigged ropes to pull up the basketball-sized, 75-pound camera and its mounting equipment. 

The camera’s lens has a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and can see 40 miles into the distance during the day and about 120 miles at night, though the rugged terrain around it will most likely block some of that view. The camera’s housing contains a heater and fan to remove fog and ice. The camera will also have near-infrared viewing abilities so it can detect the light resulting from a wildfire during dark hours. 

The live camera feed will begin a few days after installation. 

With high-quality information about the size and severity of wildfires, emergency responders can better marshal resources to contain wildfires or evacuate at-risk areas. 

“There used to be hundreds of fire lookout towers staffed by people across the American West, watching for fires. We don’t have that anymore, but what we do have now is a growing network of digital lookouts in these wildfire cameras,” said Douglas Toomey, a professor of earth sciences at the UO, and the director of the Oregon Hazards Lab, which is partnering on the project. “Preventing the most destructive wildfires requires spotting them before they morph into bigger blazes – even if those fires start in a remote location.”