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Eye On the Mountain

“There are other cameras on the mountain, but this is the only one dedicated to fire.”

Mel Johansen
Kona Hema Field Coordinator

When a wildfire starts on the high southern slopes of Mauna Loa, there’s often been nobody there to see it.  Now there is.

The Nature Conservancy, in cooperation with the National Park Service, has installed an unblinking eye high on the mountain.  The new “fire cam” covers a broad sweep of terrain, from the Ka‘ū forest in the south to Macandless Ranch further north, much  of it above the cloud line in a region often not visible from lower elevations.

Forest fires can be started by lightning strikes, by volcanic activity and by careless human activity. A key to controlling them effectively is spotting them early.

“The main problem for us is your daily Kona inversion sits around 5,000 feet. The clouds build up from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. or so. Many of the lightning strikes are in the dry forest and grasslands there and higher, and you can’t see it from below,” said Shalan Crysdale, Hawaii Island Natural Resource Manager for The Nature Conservancy.

“The last big fire, none of us who lived below knew it was burning for a couple of days,” said Mel Johansen, the Conservancy’s Kona Hema field coordinator.

The fire cam has been installed on a pole at 6,800 feet elevation in the Kahuku unit of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.  It sits on a hill on Mauna Loa’s southwest rift zone. Under normal weather conditions, it is 1,800 feet higher than the normal cloud line.

“In hunting and scouting, we found a really good vantage point up in the (Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park),” Johansen said.

The system has a state-of-the-art camera, powered by a battery charged by a solar panel. The camera pans, zooms and tilts. It rotates a full 360 degrees. It is configured to spot fine smoke plumes, and it has a Motorola radio wireless data link that transmits imagery down slope.

“It’s really high-tech,” Johansen said. “We can control it with a joystick in our office. If we swing the camera around, it can see all the way up the rift. It covers not only the Kona landscape, but also a lot of the Ka`u forest.”

The system isn’t cheap, but it has the potential to save the Conservancy significant amounts of money.

“We were spending a heck of a lot of money on helicopter time, going up after major lightning storms,” Crysdale said. 

There is the additional threat in the uplands of fires that start, but move underground for days or weeks before popping up.

“Our worst case scenario is in areas where there has been logging, and a lot of hapu`u and `ama`u fern logs have been bulldozed underground. We call them ‘punk logs,’ since they can burn slowly like a mosquito punk or a cigar, with just enough oxygen to stay lit,” Crysdale said.

Fire camera technology is comparatively new to Hawai`i, but it is increasingly being used around the world. In the Mainland United States, the fire cams are beginning to replace fire towers—high structures where binocular-equipped foresters try to spot plumes of smoke.

In South Africa, early detection by a fire camera system has reduced the average fire size by nearly 90 percent. The system spots dozens of fires each dry season, many of them at night.

The new Nature Conservancy camera certainly won’t be the only automated camera on the mountain. The Mauna Loa Observatory has a couple. There are webcams at the summit of Mauna Kea that look toward Mauna Loa. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has webcams at various points on the mountain, including the summit caldera at Mokuʻāweoweo.

But this camera sweeps a generally uncovered area, a massive section of South Kona and Ka‘ū.  “It covers a large section of our mauka forest landscape,” Johansen said. “There are a lot of other cameras on the mountain, but this is the only one dedicated to fire.”

Crysdale said he expects it to be most effective on cool, clear, quiet mornings, when even a faint column of smoke is visible a long way off.

“We’re hoping that in the early mornings, which it’s cold and still, you might see even that tiny wisp of smoke,” he said.

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