City checks German fire detection sensors


The sensors for FireWatch were developed by the German Aerospace Center, and currently protect 13 million acres of forest in Europe.

Technology created to protect the ancient Black Forest in Germany from wildfires could soon be put to use in Colorado Springs — but only if jurisdictional, financial and other concerns are sorted out.

City Council might take up the FireWatch program in a few weeks, said Councilor Joel Miller, who had his first look at the program earlier this week.

“I’m interested,” he said. “I love the idea. But it’s a matter of who pays for it, who will take responsibility for monitoring it. There are some questions, and I really need to know more. It’s definitely something we should discuss.”

FireWatch was created by the German Aerospace Center, Germany’s version of NASA, after the government asked for a monitoring system for wildfires in its urban-wildland interface. The agency adapted a sensor technology originally developed to watch asteroid gases and comet dust.

“When you think about the cost of wildfires, it’s not that much money.”

– Joel Miller, Colorado Springs City Council

That was 15 years ago. Today, FireWatch protects nearly 13 million acres of forestland in Europe. And for the first time, it’s available in the United States.

The company invited interested Springs residents and leaders, firefighters and defense contractors to the Space Foundation this week for a briefing about the technology. The Space Foundation agreed to host the conference because it believes in promoting technology originally developed for space, but adapted to life on Earth, said Kevin Cook, vice president of marketing at the foundation.

The place to start

FireWatch won the Space Foundation’s Hall of Fame Award for Technology last year — and it makes sense to showcase the product here, says CEO Joe Turnham.

“This area has been ground zero for forest fires in the United States,” Turnham said.

After two years of devastating fires that left four dead and destroyed more than 800 homes, the city of Colorado Springs is interested in the technology, Miller said.

“When you think about the cost of wildfires, it’s not that much money,” he said of the $2.5 million initial investment. “But there are many issues to be worked out.”

Colorado Springs’ urban-wildland interface is governed by a mix of agencies. Some land is in the city, and some in El Paso or Teller counties. Higher elevations are controlled by the Forest Service, and other areas by the Bureau of Land Management. Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy are included, and they’re governed by the departments of Defense, the Army and the Air Force.

But the political issues can be worked out, Turnham said. The company can monitor the system or work with local universities to train interns to monitor the system.

FireWatch works like this: Sensors are placed in forested areas. In the Springs, they would cover six to eight miles per sensor. In flatter areas, sensors are sensitive enough to read smoke 17 miles away. The tighter formation in the Rocky Mountains will allow sensors to constantly sweep canyons and mountain valleys for signs of smoke. The highly technical sensors can read nearly 17,000 shades of gray and detect movement of smoke.

In a video shown at the Space Foundation, FireWatch caught a fire in Texas in less than four-and-a-half minutes, before it was an acre wide.

The German company only recently licensed the product in the U.S., and FireWatch will place its first system in Texas next week. It also has a pilot project at Texas A&M in College Station, Turnham said. After installation, yearly maintenance contracts are about $3,500 per sensor. The company recommends between 12 and 17 sensors in the area it would patrol along the Front Range.

But the local crowd wasn’t entirely convinced. Colorado Springs is windy; would that make a difference? How would sensors read snow, rain, hail, fog?

“It might create some false alerts,” Turnham admitted. “But if it’s snowing, you wouldn’t really be watching for fires. It does love the wind; it watches for motion.”

Nonstop monitoring

The equipment requires monitoring around the clock, because it works at near infrared levels at night. Most analysis is done at the sensor itself, and when it thinks it detects smoke, it alerts the monitoring team. That team verifies the smoke and quickly determines the exact location via latitude and longitude.

“We can do it under four minutes, before it grows,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, it won’t stop wildfires from occurring, but it will allow earlier detection.”

Just preventing a wildfire, saving those costs, makes some sort of detection system worth it, Miller says. The local group was concerned, but Turnham had an answer.

“A wildfire costs money to fight,” he said. “And there’s property damage and loss of business. The Waldo Canyon fire had $1 billion in damages. Compared to that it’s not a lot of money.”

Miller agrees, saying, “When you consider the costs we spend on other projects to defend the homeland, and in this case, the homeland is Colorado Springs, it isn’t a big expense. We should definitely talk about it.

“I don’t know who the lead on this should be, but I’m willing to be the lead if I need to. I do still need more information, but I’m very interested.”