FireWatch cameras up and running 

Early-detection system scans Whistler Valley for signs of smoke

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS - SMOKE PATROL Acting fire chief Chris Nelson presents to the Committee of the Whole on Aug. 14.
  • Photo by Braden Dupuis
  • SMOKE PATROL Acting fire chief Chris Nelson presents to the Committee of the Whole on Aug. 14.

Whistler's FireWatch early fire-detection cameras are up and operational, capturing thousands of false positives in a few short weeks—but no fires yet.

"There is literally, on a cloudy day, hundreds of false positives, maybe even up to 300 false positives per day," said acting fire chief Chris Nelson at the Aug. 14 Committee of the Whole meeting. "So it's very difficult. It's almost like crying wolf."

The two cameras—one mounted at the transfer station and another on top of Whistler Mountain—cover off about 70 per cent of the valley.

They rotate 360 degrees every six minutes, capturing images of the valley and checking for smoke-like movement.

When movement is detected, the monitoring station is alerted and crews are able to assess the notification and see if further action is warranted.

Once a fire is confirmed, an email is sent to the on-duty captain and others at the Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) containing the location of the fire along with an image on Google Maps (the plan is to eventually have the emails sent directly to the Coastal Fire Centre, as well).

"Generally, we're not concerned about the alpine area, because it's far less treed and it's a little different climactic zone up there," Nelson said. "We're concerned about the valley floor and mid-to-lower part of the valley."

In handling the overload of false positives, Nelson said the WFRS can add "exclusion zones" to the display—areas where dust is being kicked up and triggering the camera sensors, like at the asphalt plant or in construction zones.

Though the system is used in Germany (where it originated), Australia and South America, it's the first of its kind in North America.

Whistler obtained the cameras on loan through a two-year trial period, paying about $52,000 for installation and setup costs.

"If we choose to do this (long term) we'll need—to cover our valley exclusively—probably another three more cameras, and the cost on average is about $100,000 a camera," Nelson said. "So the question is, would the student with a set of binoculars sitting on top of Sproatt work better? Potentially."

But while the full effectiveness of the system has yet to be proven in Whistler, there are some clear benefits to having it, Nelson said.

"We don't currently have anybody that's literally sitting on top of the mountains looking at stuff," he said. "The cameras are in place, and when they do hit on something we have very detailed coordinates and images on the camera that can be sent to Coastal and sent to the fire response team."

Whistler's cameras are only monitored during high and extreme fire danger rating periods, and even then they're not monitored 24-7, Nelson noted—the cameras can only be monitored from the fire hall and are left unmanned when crews go out on calls.

"Currently the way we have it, with everything else we're doing, this is kind of off the side of our desk," Nelson said. "There is potentially a South American company that could do (third-party monitoring) for us. They haven't given a cost yet."

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