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‘Making Big Sky safer’: Big Sky Fire Department expands early fire detection partnership

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“I have to tell you, this is my favorite Pano deployment,” said Pano AI’s Chief Commercial Officer Arvind Satyam. “It’s rare that you can be standing at a fire station and looking at a Pano station that’s deployed at 11,200 feet. Our Lone Peak station is right up there.” PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

New cameras on Pioneer Mountain improve triangulation, cover blind spots around Lone Mountain 

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

Building on their only service in the state of Montana, Pano AI is launching its second high-tech camera station in Big Sky to provide constant wildfire monitoring over the surroundings of Lone Peak and now Pioneer Mountain. Big Sky officials are considering adding a third station on Cinnamon Ridge in 2023, which would add a unique vantage point from farther southeast.  

Fire Chief Greg Megaard talks about the value of early detection. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

“Last year, Pano AI’s technology was integral in providing us with the tactical intelligence and precise triangulation needed to monitor and respond to the Shedhorn Fire, which was critical to limiting the damage,” said Big Sky Fire Chief Greg Megaard in a press release. “We are excited to expand our partnership to make Big Sky safer.” 

Pano AI uses a 360-degree camera system with 30x tactical zoom to constantly scan for signs of wildfire. Plumes of smoke are first detected by AI with deep learning ability, but any alarming camera feed is then immediately reviewed by Pano AI’s human staff to prevent false alarms and send effective alerts to local forces. The network also uses satellite imagery and 911 calls. These methods are less useful for early detection, but they provide additional information for first responders including topography and possible causes or response hazards. With more than one Pano AI station in an area of coverage, the network can triangulate the location and provide critical information to first responders.  

Three is the magic number for exact triangulation, however, which is a main reason for a Cinnamon Ridge station if the Big Sky community chooses to fund a third stage of the project.

The first station was funded by Big Sky Area Resort District, Spanish Peaks, Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Resort and the Big Sky Fire Department. The Pioneer Mountain station was funded by contributions from Yellowstone Club and insurance broker Risk Strategies, according to BSRAD Board Chair Sarah Blechta. BSRAD has allocated $40,000 in total resort tax dollars to the fire department for this technology.

Pano AI first installed a 360-degree wildfire camera system on Lone Peak in September 2021. Within the month, the system used artificial intelligence to detect smoke 13 miles away and triggered a response which ultimately contained the Shedhorn Fire to just 74 acres.  

This validated the technology that had been used in California and Oregon, and in the ski industry only in Aspen, Colorado. In one year since the Lone Peak camera was installed, Pano AI expanded to Idaho, and to other Colorado resorts including Vail, Beaver Creek and Eldora. The company is working with many other resorts, according to Satyam. He said that ski resort communities are on the front lines of intensifying fire risk.  

“I can’t thank the [Big Sky] community enough for being one of the first movers on this,” said Pano AI’s Chief Commercial Officer Arvind Satyam.  

Arvind Satyam, Chief Commercial Officer of Pano AI, speaks at the Big Sky Fire Station. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

“It doesn’t really change anything operationally for what [Big Sky firefighters] are doing,” Deputy Fire Chief Dustin Tetrault told EBS. “It’s another tool in the toolbox for us. The biggest benefit is the increase in our safety because of extra situational awareness. You’re able to see what kind of fire behavior these guys are going into—where are they going, what’s the fuel zone they’re going into, where are the safety zones.”  

This technology can also be used for prescribed burns, according to Williams. The U.S. Forest Service this summer had a three-month pause on prescribed burns after a forest service team lost control of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires in April in New Mexico, creating the largest recorded wildfire in state history. However, Williams said, “I think we all know that prescribed fires are an incredibly important tool to prevent catastrophic wildfires.” 

Pano collaborated with local forest and fire officials near Aspen, Colorado to track progress and identify threats in the prescribed Hunter Creek Fire. 

Satyam answered a question about the possibility of using this technology for other uses including avalanche reporting, search and rescue, mudslides and other climate related disasters.  

“As we look at the capability, it can be applied to many other areas and we’ve gotten great feedback from end users,” Satyam said. “As we think about moving into other spaces, we just need to collect a whole bunch of data and look through that.” 

It was also noted that more wildfire detection technology would improve access to property insurance, which has become more difficult to afford in wildfire country.

The cameras use powerful HD zoom, which might concern nearby residents.  

“We take privacy very seriously,” said Business Development Manager Kat Williams. “We are using this tool to confirm vegetation smoke, and that is all. [We] provide intelligence to firefighters that are responding to the smoke. Nothing else.”  

During installation, the cameras are programmed manually with “hard pixelation” or blur overlayed on properties and community centers such as Big Sky’s Mountain Village and resort-adjacent properties.  

Williams later clarified that nobody, even members on the Pano team, can disable the pixelation of human structures and urban environments. 

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