Western wildfire camera detection network

The Oregon Hazards Lab has developed and operates a high-speed camera network that gives fire managers new ways to detect and track wildfires. Cameras are installed atop high peaks or even high-rise buildings with 360-degree views of the surrounding area. Each camera can zoom, rotate, and tilt, allowing users to monitor the landscape, smokes, fire behavior, and weather conditions in real-time, or review later through time-lapse footage. The Oregon camera network is integrated with those operated by collaborators including the University of Nevada in Reno and the University of California at San Diego, with dozens of cameras in Oregon and thousands in the Western states.

The Oregon Hazards Lab network at the University of Oregon has helped put together the largest public-facing camera system in the world.

Doug Toomey, the lab’s director, says, “The cameras are visible during the day, and you can see twenty to forty miles on a clear day. At night they go near infrared, and you can actually see much farther.”

He told KEZI that detecting smoke on the cameras is only the first step. “There’s an operations center where they’re alerted when this camera spots something.”

There are currently 45 wildfire cameras in Oregon, and the Lab plans to operate 75 across the state by late 2025.  These cameras help fire managers:

        • Detect, locate, and confirm ignitions
        • Quickly scale resources up or down
        • Monitor fire behavior from ignition to containment
        • Improve local evacuations and situational awareness

The increased situational awareness available with the cameras means fire managers can confirm 911 calls by reviewing camera footage instead of dispatching personnel or aircraft for reconnaissance. Not only is this safer and less expensive, but it frees up resources that may be needed elsewhere. Fire managers can also monitor prescribed fires, and utility companies can monitor their resources during red flag conditions.

Diane Braun, a former hotshot, said she thinks the cameras would have been a valuable resource when she was on the fireline. “It would have changed the industry,” she says, “from start to finish.” Toomey adds that the cameras play a role before a fire even starts; he says the cameras help to evaluate fuels and weather conditions in the area, including winds, humidity, and other factors before fire crews even arrive.

ALERTWest cameras live feed
ALERTWest cameras live feed

The network lets people monitor cameras online. Toomey said he thinks the system can help people watch fire conditions and understand the threats — and even take steps in wildfire prevention. Agencies including the Oregon Department of Forestry have access to the camera system. Jessica Neujahr with ODF said using the cameras helps them not only detect smoke, but also dispatch resources faster and get a preview of the landscape they’re heading into.


The detection cameras are powered by ALERTWest, a technology platform from DigitalPath. This platform uses artificial intelligence to enable rapid wildfire detection. AI technology pulls the camera feeds from cloud servers and scans images for ignitions using detection algorithms and then can alert dispatch centers. Dispatchers then confirm the detection before alerting responding agencies. Fire managers in Oregon will begin receiving the automated alerts during the 2024 season.

Dispatch center in Bozeman, MT to close

Reasons cited include difficulty in filling positions

Map -- Custer Gallatin NF western region

One of the three dispatch centers that serve the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana is closing. Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center has been the smallest of the three and multiple factors over the last decade have created a situation where the center is not sustainable, according to information released by the Forest:

Fire seasons are generally longer and often intense, increasing the expectations from dispatch centers that directly support firefighters. Additional policy changes affecting aircraft dispatching and the cost of living to attract dispatchers to Bozeman, MT are also factors.

Over the last three years, Bozeman dispatch has tried unsuccessfully to recruit and fill the Initial Attack dispatcher position in several separate hiring events. The cost of living in Bozeman was cited as the biggest deterrent to accepting a position.

The Forest Service (FS) and the other agencies staffing the Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center have decided that the Bozeman-based dispatch center “will transition to Billings,” meaning, Bozeman Dispatch will close.

Marna Daley, the Public Affairs Officer for the Custer Gallatin NF told Wildfire Today that the organizational chart for the Bozeman Dispatch Center had five positions supplied by the Forest Service — two permanent full-time, one permanent part-time, and two seasonals. Because of the difficulty in filling the jobs there, in recent years typically there were only two FS personnel in the office. Ms. Daley said with so many vacant positions at Bozeman, they often brought in detailers or used other methods to take up the slack.

As this transition is occurring, and with it being early in the fire season, only one position is filled, and that person has accepted a different job on the Forest.

dispatch center -- Great Plains in Rapid City, SD
Example of a dispatch center — Great Plains in Rapid City, SD. January 25, 2012.

The Billings Interagency Dispatch Center is staffed by workers not only from the FS, but also the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. The FS’s contribution will be three permanent full-time positions and one seasonal.

But in recent years both Bozeman and Billings have operated at low staffing levels with critical unfilled vacancies. 

“Often throughout a wildland fire season dispatch centers need to operate seven-days/week, round-the-clock schedule to support wildland fire operations, which has proven difficult at current staffing levels,” the FS wrote in a briefing document about combining the two dispatch centers.

The FS described Billings as “A city with a broad base of socially and economically diverse systems including housing, schools, airport, healthcare, childcare, and family necessities associated with the cost of living…A fully staffed Billings Interagency Dispatch Center should also provide a better work-life balance for employees across the spectrum.”

The FS tentatively expects Billings Dispatch to be fully operational with the appropriate radio communications and additional duties on April 18, 2022. Field testing has been going on since March. The phone number to report a fire will be the main dispatch number, 406-896-2900.