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Colorado bill to fund AI-equipped cameras to detect and fight wildfires advances

Wildfires in Colorado have caused billions of dollars in damage and are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the climate changes.

DENVER (CN) — Can updating the forest’s hardware help curb wildfire damage? Colorado lawmakers hope so.

On Thursday, the state Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources unanimously voted in support of a bill that would fund a pilot program using cameras monitored by artificial intelligence to detect wildfires in remote areas. The bill would give the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control $2 million and four years to assess the viability of the technology to help prevent wildfire loses.

“The goal is to find fires very early when they’re very small in areas where we don’t want fires,” said Vaughn Jones, section chief of Wildland Fire Management under Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Jones testified in support of the bill. “This technology lets us be very aggressive early on and keep the cost down.”

In 2020, Colorado recorded three of its largest wildfires that each caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. At the end of 2021, the Marshall Fire in Boulder County racked up $2 billion in losses in less than 24 hours, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

“We currently have a small handful of cameras in the field, deployed on mountaintops feeding footage to a super computer which looks at the real-time footage,” said Ben Miller, director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. “It’s not humanly possible to keep an eye on all the feeds 24 hours a day, so you teach the super computer what to look for.”

Communities in Aspen, Vail, Boulder and Telluride use similar technology to detect wildfires early on.

“Originally I was a little suspect of camera technology because I thought someone had to watch it for it to be effective, but I’ve learned the artificial intelligence technology is there so that’s not the case,” said state Senator Cleave Simpson, a Republican from Alamosa and one of the bill's sponsors. “It seems like a reasonable investment with positive outcomes for us.”

Originally recommended by the Interim Wildfire Committee, the bill has bipartisan support in the state Senate and a Republican sponsor in the House.

“My testimony is rooted in my lived experience as a hotshot firefighter,” said Katt Williams, who heads government sales and development for Pano AI in San Francisco, a company that is likely to bid to supply the state with wildfire detection cameras. “This technology will keep fires smaller and firefighters safer.”

The bill next heads to the House Fiscal Committee for review.

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