Flames light up the smoke plume as a wildfire moves west down the hill at Marshall Mesa on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, near Eldorado Springs, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

Legislation to use fire-detecting cameras to monitor Colorado for wildfires unanimously passed its first committee hurdle on Monday. 

House Bill 1148, advanced by the House Committee of Agriculture, Livestock & Water, would create a pilot program using remote cameras to detect wildfires and notify firefighters. The pilot program would run from April 2023 to September 2026 and cost $2 million initially, plus around $95,000 for each subsequent year.

Lawmakers are tackling the bill only two months after the Marshall fire — the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history — devastated Boulder County, burning over 6,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 homes. Record-breaking wildfires have become more and more common in Colorado, with the three largest wildfires in state history all occurring in 2020.

"This is a bill about doing everything we can to prevent wildfire," said bill sponsor Rep. Dylan Roberts. The Avon Democrat said he hopes the pilot program would validate the technology for Colorado as the state combats "what we know will continue to be catastrophic wildfire seasons — or wildfire years — for many years to come."

The $2 million under the bill would buy between 25 and 35 cameras. While specific locations for the cameras have not been chosen, they would be placed in remote areas in the wildland-urban interface — where human-built environments meet natural environments, creating greater wildfire risk. The cameras would be mobile and could be moved to different locations throughout the pilot program. 

The bipartisan bill builds off wildfire-detecting technology already being used in other states such as California, Roberts said.

More than 1,000 wildfire-detecting cameras are deployed throughout California, said Dr. Neal Driscoll, director of the state's Alter Wildfire Program and professor at the University of California San Diego. Driscoll said the high-definition PTZ cameras have near-infrared fire detection, can see 70 miles during the day and can see 120 miles at night.

"What used to take maybe 30 minutes to confirm a fire by sending in an engine or an aircraft now takes minutes," Driscoll said, adding that the cameras have increased notice for evacuations after California suffered its deadliest wildfire in 2018, the Camp fire. "We need all of these to help in this extreme climate."

HB-1148 is one of several bills introduced this session to address wildfires, including three to establish wildfire mitigation grants, one to increase resources for volunteer firefighters and another to create wildfire awareness campaigns. Those bills were all brought forth by the Wildfire Matters Review Committee, which rejected the proposal for a wildfire-detecting camera pilot program in October.

The committee, which could only approve five bills to forward to the Legislative Council, raised concerns about investing in technology that may be obsolete soon and questioned the usability of the data the cameras collected.

Despite these reservations, supporters of the bill said it is essential for Colorado to utilize every tool available to fight wildfires.

"One thing is never going to be the answer, but this is one of the things that can help right away," said bill sponsor Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose. "If we can find ways to catch those fires quicker, identify right where it’s at, and let the people that fight fire get to it that much quicker, we should be doing that."

Legislation to use fire-detecting cameras to monitor Colorado for wildfires unanimously passed its first committee hurdle on Monday. 

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