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Utilities Board mulls fire detection devices

June 19, 2013 Updated: June 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm

For months retired resident Walter Lawson pleaded with the Colorado Springs City Council and Utilities Board to invest in wildfire detection devices.

Fire season was coming, he told them repeatedly, and the city ought to spend money upfront to avoid the huge costs of wildfire disaster later.

Wednesday, with the Black Forest fire on their minds, the council, sitting as the Utilities Board, directed utilities CEO Jerry Forte to investigate buying wildfire detection technology, estimated at $2.5 million. They want to hear his report by July.

"Mr. Lawson's point is well taken -- $2.5 million in light of the damage and lives destroyed doesn't seem like a huge amount of money," said board member Joel Miller. "I think there are things in the budget I would pull money out of if it came to that."

Forte and his staff have been researching the detection technology, he said. Utilities, which has billions in assets, operates a wildland fire team whose job is to protect those assets from fire.

One company they've talked with is Alabama-based Fire Watch America, which installs early wildfire detection technology and claims its sensor devices can see smoke plumes for 10 miles or more; spot smoke in daylight within six to eight minutes of ignition; send precise location messages to emergency services and firefighters of smoke events; and create forensic digital records of smoke events.

But the sensors, which are perched high in towers or on poles and widely used in Germany, are expensive, said Mike Myers, Colorado Springs Utilities wildland fire team chief.

"What agencies struggle with is the money," he said.

According to Fire Watch America, 15 sensors and three controllers would cost $2.5 million and the sensors would cover the area from Fort Carson up to the Air Force Academy and along the western forested side of the city.

Lawson has been ringing the early detection bell since last summer's Waldo Canyon fire and he is worried about Cheyenne Mountain, he said.

"What we need is a multi-layered system," Lawson said.

Lawson also has produced research for the city council on hand-thrown drones that could fly over the forest and send reports back to a base camp. It would be ideal, he said, to use the sensors and the drones together.

In other business, the utilities board expects to hire a solar garden developer by September. The board wants to expand the city's community solar garden program by 2 megawatts. In 2011, the city approved a pilot program where utility users can buy solar panels in solar gardens and transfer energy into the city's electric system. John Romero, utilities general manager of energy services, said if the city council approves the expansion of the solar garden program by September, the expanded solar garden operational could be operational within a year.

The Drake Task Force is back in business. The utilities board approved re-establishing the task force to act as an oversight group to the Drake Study, which is being conducted by HDR Engineering. Board member Val Snider said the task force was launched earlier this year to help vet the engineering firm that is looking at whether it would be cost-effective to decommission the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant.

But Snider believes the task force work is not over. He wants the nine-member group help gather public comment and provide an independent review of the study and recommendations about its findings to the board. HDR is expected to complete the study by December 31.

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