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WA state agency inks deal with AI company to help spot wildfires

Courtesy WA Department of Natural Resources
Washington state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz announces the new partnership between her agency and Panos AI during a press conference at Spokane County Fire District 9.

Panos AI will install cameras on mountaintops to provide better monitoring of high-risk fire areas.

The number of acres that burned in Washington wildfires last summer was down from past years, in part because the state emphasized attacking fires early to keep them from growing large and out of control.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources is doubling down on that, signing a new agreement with a California artificial intelligence company on a pilot project to locate new wildfires and keep them from growing.

State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz says Pano AI will install 21 revolving high-definition security cameras on mountaintops around Washington state. Pano CEO Sonia Kastner says cameras will be connected to structures such as cell phone towers and water tanks. They feed information to artificiaI intelligence and satellite technology.

“When our AI detects a potential fire, first it is screened by analysts in our Pano intelligence center to determine if it’s a false positive or a true fire. If it’s a true fire, we then trigger an automated alert, which goes out to a variety of fire agencies simultaneously. They then coordinate with each other to get to the scene with the right resources to contain that fire while it’s still small,” Kastner said.

Kastner says this is part of a national shift in wildfire-fighting strategy.

“Resources like planes, helicopters, bulldozers, that were originally purchased for major incidents like 30,000-acre, 50,000-acre incidents, those resources are now being applied on small incidents like 5-acre, 10-acre incidents, often in the first hour after ignition, to nip that fire in the bud and prevent it from becoming a major incident,” she said.

Pano AI is in its third year operating its network. It is also working in six states, including Idaho, Oregon and California.

“The fire agencies that we’re working with are excited to establish a more collaborative strategy, increasing the need for information sharing across agencies and that’s exactly the benefit for a tool like Panos,” she said.

Franz said the agreement between and her agency and Pano AI has just been signed. They haven’t yet finalized which mountaintops will be home to the new cameras, but a spokeswoman for Pano suggested one may be located somewhere on Spokane’s West Plains, where fires have become more common and dangerous, especially on windy days. Franz says some of those cameras will also be placed on sites in western Washington, where wildfires are becoming more common.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.