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Testing Underway For New N5 Wildfire Sensors In Colorado's Mountains

GILPIN COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) - You could call them "burglar alarms for fires" and you would be mostly right. N5 Sensors are being tested and now used up in Gilpin County near Black Hawk. They are intended to help alert emergency crews to a wildfire sooner than if someone is just seeing smoke and calls 911.

"We will give them the precise GPS coordinates and a visual of the heat signature from where the sensor is," Debra Deininger, CRO for N5 Sensors said. "...And they know where to go to deploy to be able to contain and control that fire."

The large electronic bricks look a bit similar to an old walkie talkie or the first generation of cellphones. N5 Sensors assured Mountain Newsroom Reporter Spencer Wilson they're rugged and durable and able to withstand anything Colorado weather would (and will) throw at them.

N5 Sensors
(credit: CBS)

"The number one thing is it has to work" Deininger explained.

"I live in Longmont I've been running them at my house since September."

Right now Gilpin County has 6 prototypes out in the wilderness. It's hoping to deploy between 20 and 25 this summer around what it calls high risk areas, chosen for the number of people and structures there are nearby, and the likelihood a wildfire would spark up there.

Gilpin County Emergency Management Director Nathan Whittington believes this system can help Colorado battle an increasingly bleak wildfire outlook.

"Having an alert system that can work as it is snowing or as it is 90 degrees and high wind and a red flag condition (is critical)," Whittington said.

"We have to start approaching firefighting and fire suppression in all aspects of what we need to do."

He is hoping to purchase even more sensors for the county using grant money, pumping their numbers up to 150-200. With each additional sensor, the data and accuracy of the location of a wildfire increases, as well as the coverage area.

Whittington said these are a perfect fit for rugged communities who are in high-risk areas for wildfire but might not have access to reliable cell service everywhere. The sensors operate on very basic information and transmit limited data, allowing it to connect over weak signal areas, but still deliver the full message.

The machines operate off of infrared heat sensors, gas sensors and particulate sensors to judge whether or not there's a wildfire present.

N5 Sensors also said their machines can differentiate from wildfire smoke from different areas, so if smoke from California was drifting past Colorado they would notice the difference and not set off an alarm unnecessarily.

After a trial run with the prototypes, Whittington said they were alerted to a controlled burn 36 minutes faster than the 911 call came, and he's hopeful to have an early start to react to wildfires when they add even more sensors throughout the county.

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