Wildfire Cameras in Pitkin County OK’d for Summer, Could Help Insurance Market

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Wildfire Cameras in Pitkin County OK’d for Summer, Could Help Insurance Market

A technologically advanced pilot program started last summer to monitor wildfire activity in Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley could eventually make it easier for some area homeowners to receive insurance coverage, sources said Tuesday.

Pitkin County commissioners gave the thumbs up Tuesday for the pilot program — which uses constantly rotating, high-definition cameras to detect possible wildfires — to continue this summer.

“I see absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t want to continue this,” Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said. “It’s fascinating information and we appreciate the effort.”

The program — administered by a Silicon Valley-based company called Pano AI — did not cost Pitkin County taxpayers anything last year thanks to a donation by Red Mountain homeowner Jerry Hosier. Commissioner Greg Poschman thanked Hosier on Tuesday for that effort.

This year, however, the Aspen Fire Department will foot the bill for the wildfire monitoring, which was discounted to $60,000 — about half price — by Pano because AFD and Pitkin County were one of the first areas to allow the program to be installed and tested last year, said Rick Balentine, AFD chief.

But perhaps more important than the price is that Balentine and Arvind Satyam, Pano’s chief commercial officer, are trying to get insurance companies to be familiar with the wildfire monitoring system. Balentine said the effort will hopefully lead to the companies not only issuing more property insurance policies for area homeowners, but also contributing to the future cost of the monitoring system, which won’t always be offered at half-price.

“(The cameras) are like big smoke detectors in the sky, and as soon as insurance companies recognize that, it will be better for everyone,” he said.

As wildfires have become more prevalent, insurance companies have begun canceling more policies. Balentine said a friend of his who was trying to buy a major property in the Redstone area recently had to end his efforts because he couldn’t get property insurance.

Commissioner Steve Child, whose family has owned a ranch in the Old Snowmass area for decades, also said his property insurance company recently dropped him because of wildfire risk and he had to scramble to find another company that would insure the ranch.

Balentine said he’s been negotiating with insurance companies recently and hopes to possibly invite company representatives to a summit with Satyam and Pano in the near future to demonstrate how valuable the system is for preventing wildfires.

The high-definition cameras have been installed on four communication towers in Pitkin County, including Upper Red Mountain, Ajax, Jackrabbit Ridge in Snowmass Village and the Williams Tower in the Old Snowmass area. They each feature two constantly rotating cameras that use artificial intelligence algorithms to scan the areas for smoke.

The cameras run 24 hours a day, seven days a week between June and November, can see 10 to 15 miles and have a zoom feature that helps triangulate a fire’s location.

After last year’s initial installation, the artificial intelligence has learned a lot, Satyam told commissioners Tuesday. For example, the cameras discovered what changing foliage looks like in the fall — which they hadn’t seen before — as well as what initial snowmaking efforts looked like in November, he said.

Last year’s installation in Pitkin County was Pano’s first outside of California. Now, the company has expanded to Oregon and Montana, as well as two states in Australia, Satyam said. That has allowed the artificial intelligence to learn even more about what smoke looks like against different backgrounds like haze, he said.

Last year’s wildfire season in Pitkin County was, fortunately, fairly quiet, Balentine said. The cameras did detect one lightning strike near Highway 82 in the Lazy Glen area in July, though passersby reported the smoke first.

Balentine said he’s confident the system will continue to provide benefits to Pitkin County residents this summer, especially with the gains made by the artificial intelligence.

By: Jason Auslander I  The Aspen Times I April 2022

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