A view from an ALERTWildfire camera
A view from an ALERTWildfire camera on Pine Mountain in central Oregon on March 30, 2022. (Screenshot from Alertwildfire.Org)

Oregon will soon have nearly 60 cameras across the state perched on cell phone towers, old fire towers and mountaintops, watching for potential forest fires across the state.

The cameras, part of the ALERTWildfire network, help fire departments and state agencies spot wildfires early, predict their movements and slow their spread. They also allow Oregonians the opportunity to make evacuation decisions early, based on their proximity to fires.

Currently, the network is made up of two dozen cameras, which will more than double with new state money. 

Legislators in February appropriated $4.5 million to the Oregon Hazards Lab at the University of Oregon to add at least 29 cameras across the state over the next year. Most of the two dozen currently operating are in southeast and western Oregon. New cameras will be concentrated in the Rogue Valley and in the Bend, Richmond and La-Pine areas.

The video streams are accessible online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the public and to emergency response agencies and firefighters, who can also use a time lapse feature to go back and trace the origins of a fire. Additionally, artificial intelligence software in the system can detect smoke and alert fire agencies and emergency responders. 

Such a forest surveillance system was first implemented around Lake Tahoe in 2014 by the University of Nevada Reno and has expanded to Oregon, California, Washington, and Idaho in partnership with state and federal agencies and public universities. 

The Oregon expansion is being spearheaded by Doug Toomey, a geophysicist and director of the Oregon Hazards Lab, where scientists study natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest, and search for ways to use technology to monitor and mitigate them.

Toomey hopes the camera’s be useful to  people living in areas prone to wildfire.

“You don’t have to sit and wait to see if your home is being evacuated. You can see what things look like in real time,” he said. 

In California, the system has allowed fire agencies to respond more strategically to fires when  they begin to move. During the Lilac Fire in San Diego County in 2017, several fire departments collaborated to double the size of their initial response within the first 10 minutes of flames spreading. They could see the size of the fire from the elevated cameras rather than waiting to assess on the ground, according to a CBS news report.

Toomey said the Hazards Lab can program cameras to gray out homes or businesses upon request for privacy reasons. Toomey said for the most part, people living within view of the fire cameras have seen the benefits outweigh their concerns.

The number of cameras in Oregon are still small in comparison to other states that are part of the ALERTWildfire collaborative. In California, the network has more than 1,000 cameras positioned around the state including dozens near its border with Oregon. 

“It is a great start to have this money but we have a long way to go,” Toomey said.  

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.