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How AI is helping detect wildfires in Washington

High-tech fire lookouts are now helping spot wildfires in Washington. This fire season, the state has deployed cameras geared up with artificial intelligence. So far, officials said they are working – helping to put out several fires, including the Crater Creek Fire in northeastern Washington.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has set up 11 stations, consisting of two 360-degree view, ultra-high definition cameras. The cameras, developed by San Francisco-based Pano AI, detect smoke and fire starts within a 15-mile radius.

“It's really a modern day lookout,” said Kat Williams, a former wildland firefighter and the director of government development for Pano AI. “It's harder and harder to post lookout positions. The person has to be on duty, scanning the landscape, and it's taxing. With AI, you don't have that fatigue component. The AI is constantly searching the landscape 24/7 without rest.”

While the AI cameras won’t replace any traditional tools, she said they will be an additional tool to help keep fires small.

A Pano AI camera station on Signal Peak in Washington.
Courtesy of Pano AI
A Pano AI camera station on Signal Peak in Washington.

Once the cameras detect something, they send that data to people who will check out the information. If it does look like a potential fire, Pano AI can text or email pictures and data to the state dispatch center, which officials say could drastically cuts down on response time.

Getting resources in quickly is everything, said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

“If we saw smoke in the air, whether it was spotted by a resident or one of our own people out, we’ll send the air resource,” Franz said. “The moment smoke’s in the air, they're flying straight to the fire. They're looking for it, but they're trying to find it. They don't have the longitude and latitude. With Pano AI, it tells us exactly where (the fire) is.”

Beyond that, the cameras will send images with topographical maps, including information on the nearest water source, and show how the wind is moving the fire.

“One of the most important things is water,” Williams said. “If you're using engines or aerial support, you can identify where the closest water resources are in relation to the incident, and you can automatically tell those resources where to reload their engine or where to send the aircraft to do bucket drops.”

That will make firefighting easier and safer, she said.

“I can tell you, I wish I would have had it when I was operational,” Williams said.

By next summer, the state hopes to have a total of 21 cameras up and running. Eventually, Franz said, those cameras could help with evacuation information.

The cameras will be installed in high-priority areas that show as much DNR land as possible, state officials said.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric has deployed 30 of the camera stations, according to Pano AI. This summer, according to a T-Mobile news release, the cameras helped detect the Boulder Wildfire in the Mount Hood National Forest. Idaho has four camera stations in place.

A green and blue map of Washington state with red and green stars on it.
Courtesy of Pano AI
A map of current and planned Pano AI camera stations covering Washington's DNR-managed lands.

The cameras are connected via the T-Mobile 5G network, said Pano AI CEO and founder Sonia Kastner.

Kastner said her company looks to take technology that has been developed for other industries and find ways to put it to use in emergency management situations.

“We all know about 5G for our cell phones, which is used for downloading huge amounts of data onto your phone,” she said. “T-Mobile helped us understand that we could also use 5G to upload huge amounts of camera data from remote locations in the forest.”

T-Mobile officials said the company has built in redundancies if the network were to fail.

“We build the same as if we do in big cities for rural communities,” said Erin Raney, senior director of advanced emerging technologies for T-Mobile. “The same type of performance and reliability, you can count on in these rural areas where we're monitoring wildfires.”

Kastner said this pilot project will be the largest the company has done with any state agency.

Franz said it shouldn’t be the last. She said she’s traveling to Washington, D.C., later this month to push for more AI camera deployments.

“This isn't a small state,” Franz said. “(Twenty-one) Pano cameras don't get you very far and having them just on state lands also doesn't necessarily help you because we have to be bringing in our partners, our federal lands, our private lands and our tribal lands. We're going to be urging that we have significant investments as we prove the value of this technology in every corner of the state.”

This season, Washington has seen around 1,750 wildfires, but Franz said, 95% of those fires have remained very small – although there are still several months before fire season comes to a close.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.