The Nature Conservancy’s new solar-powered fire camera on Mauna Loa. (The Nature Conservancy/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Scientists and environmentalists are hoping a new camera, installed on Mauna Loa earlier this year, will help them get the jump on high elevation forest fires.
The Nature Conservancy installed the fire camera on Mauna Loa, about three miles above the tree line at 6,800 feet above sea level, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Kahuku Unit.
Kona Hema Unit Field Coordinator Mel Johansen said he and other conservancy employees had toyed around with the idea of setting a small, controlled burn to test how well the camera could spot smoke at long distances. Turns out they didn’t have to.
“This morning, we did spot a vent on Mauna Loa that is smoking,” Johansen said. “It’s been there a while. We knew it was there. We were pretty excited the camera is able to pick up smoke at a distance.”
The smoke was about 10 miles from the camera. That Johansen and others were able to see it clearly Friday morning meant they should be able to spot smoke from forest fires, too, he said.
Fires at upper elevations can ignite and burn for days before someone notices, Johansen said. In 1993, a fire burned 500 acres over the course of about a week before someone in Kealakekua, about 25 miles away, noticed the glow at night.
Johansen and others installed the camera about two months ago. He said they hiked back and forth many times, carrying equipment to the location and making adjustments to ensure the camera remained operational. The camera, and related radio equipment, is solar-powered, with battery backups on site. An iPhone app allows Johansen and his crew to remotely view the camera’s feed. The Nature Conservancy is working with the app developer to add features that would allow employees to remotely control and manipulate the camera as well.
One advantage to the elevation, conservancy officials said, is the camera sits 1,800 feet higher than the normal cloud line in normal weather conditions. Hawaii Island Natural Resource Manager Shalan Crysdale said many lightning strikes are above the 5,000-foot elevation, which is the normal cloud line. With the clouds in the way, people at lower elevations can’t see that fires have started.
From its vantage point, the camera can provide views from the Ka‘u forest region to the south to McCandless Ranch in the north. The entire system, including monitors at the Kona Hema Preserve office, cost about $18,000, Johansen said. That’s a small investment that could have a big payoff by saving the conservancy, and the county, significantly by detecting fires earlier, making it easier to extinguish them, he added.
Several state, county and federal agencies spent two weeks fighting a fire above Kealakekua Ranch several years ago, Johansen said. Those long-term firefighting jobs can be costly, he added, especially when agencies have to use helicopters to reach remote regions.
Eventually, Johansen said he would like to see the fire department at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have the ability to check and control the camera. The public may eventually be able to see the images, too, through the planned Hawaii Conservancy Portal, a conservancy website.