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Jackson Co Commissioners support drones for fire monitoring and Greenway sweeps

The Bear Creek Greenway is a 20-mile paved, multi-use trail. (KTVL/Megan Willgoos)
The Bear Creek Greenway is a 20-mile paved, multi-use trail. (KTVL/Megan Willgoos)
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During their work session Wednesday, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners discussed the potential use of drones along the Bear Creek Greenway to monitor fire threats and uncover homeless encampments along the biking and hiking trail.

Ultimately the initiative would be led by the city of Medford and funded through Rogue Valley Council of Governments (RVCOG). Though the county's approval is not required in order to move forward, RVCOG requested that commissioners voice approval or non-approval of the program.

"I just wanted to bring the discussion before the board before I took a position in an RVCOG meeting supporting or not supporting this," commissioner Rick Dyer, a board member of RVCOG, said during the work session. "Obviously one of the issues that we have on the Greenway in the summertime is the potential fire danger, we've had several fires out there, this seems to be a pretty good commercial solution to that."

Dyer explained that the drones would be able to detect hotspots via infrared technology to spot out small fires. He said the technology could also be used to spot encampments along the Greenway to conduct sweeps (removing illicit homeless camps from the Greenway).

Discussion of the initiative centered around issues of privacy.

"I do have a concern about drone surveillance of anybody," said commissioner Colleen Roberts. "We already know probably where a lot of those encampments are with on the groundwork we've done."

Commissioners heard from technology Services Coordinator of Rogue Valley Council of Governors, Nikki Hart-Brinkley who answered questions and explained some of the program's details.

"When you send a drone up like this--and the drone that we use for fire monitoring is fairly large, it's a big black drone--it's one of these things that when you hear about government surveillance using drones, this is what conjures to mind," she said noting that RVCOG's goal was to remain transparent and accountable about the program's details.

She explained that despite the imagery drone surveillance conjures, fire monitoring is not as invasive as many may picture it.

"I don't think there is anyone that is not worried about privacy issues in today's times," Hart-Brinkley said. "One thing that is really important to understand about the active fire monitoring flights is that we do not record any imagery during these flights unless there is a situation where we have a fire."

She said image recording during a fire would only occur at the direction of the fire or police department and noted that otherwise, the drone would not actually be recording any images.

"When you fly a drone flight for fire monitoring what's happening is you are looking through a thermal camera and that is very different from a regular red, green, blu camera," she said.

Hart-Brinkley explained that a thermal camera picks up thermal (heat-related) information and it pixelates everything.

"You can't see people's faces, it simply doesn't show up," she said.

She explained that the drone would use the same type of technology used to keep track of the Ashland watershed and noted that it would begin flying close to daybreak and would start to monitor "thermal noise," as the sun begins to heat up leaves and rocks.

"What we are looking for isn't a live active fire," she said, "those are pretty easy to spot, you can see the smoke."Instead, she said the drone would pick up "the more difficult things to see," such as a campfire that had been lit the night before.

"Those campfires remain very dangerous, they can sometimes bleed into the ground and eat up roots and other burried wood and so they can remain dangerous for some time, and those do not give off smoke," she said. "We can detect that kind of thermal signature through some pretty significant canopy coverage."

The camera used on the drone picks up thermal signatures and pixelates everything. The only colors seen are blacks, grays, whites and yellows. The only time the camera would be switched to one similar to what we use on our phone, would be when a person and fire cannot be differentiated.

Hart-Brinkley did, however, note that the drone would also pick up body temperatures and could easily misplace a person behind a blackberry bush as a campfire extinguished the night before.

"When we find something like that--an anomaly--what the pilot does is he switches over to a regular RGB camera, the ones that we are used to seeing, and he will make a quick determination about the source of that thermal signature."

She said if the pilot then notes that the source of heat is related to a human or larger animal it will move on. "If it is something of concern the location is noted," she said.

Addressing privacy concerns she explained that if used for fire monitoring, images captured by the drones would follow the same regulations as they do for the drones currently used to monitor the Ashland watershed.

"It is laid out very clearly in our IGA (Intergovernmental Agreement) with Ashland that any imagery we do capture is the sole property of Ashland, we do not release those images to anyone for any reason," she said.

County council brought up the concern that through the Freedom of Information Act, images belonging to the city could potentially be released to anyone. Though Hart-Brinkley said she believes the images would not be admissible in court, council disagreed.

Hart-Brinkley said she is sensitive to the rights of the homeless population living on the Greenway.

"As someone who works both in a volunteer and professional capacity with the homelessness task force and a lot of housing initiatives around the valley I want to make sure that I fully explore and address that," she said.

She said though the drone program on the Greenway is still in an exploratory phase, some test flights had been conducted one which included a fly along with a member of Medford's livability team, a unit of the city's police department.

"They did not find any active campfires, they did find a handful of encampments," she said.

Hart-Brinkley addressed using the drone to aid in Greenway sweeps particularly as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted during the first phases of reopening. After Oregon Gov. Kate Brown mandated a stay-at-home order, sweeps were suspended and camping on the Greenway was allowed because of the added restrictions to shelters. The City of Medford has recently proposed designating one fire-safe area for that use.

"There will at some point be a sweep ahead of relocating campers to this potential camping site in Medford and we had discussed doing a flight prior to that sweep," Hart-Brinkley said noting that this is not something she would recommend doing often but in this case, she said, "it is so vitally important that we get people off the Greenway this season, we have had a lot of fires."

Gathering information from the Medford Police Department, Brinkley stated there were 90 fires from March 1 to May 27 of which 51 fires were located within 200 meters of the Greenway.

Hart-Brinkley said the risk of fire affected the safety of both the housed and the unhoused. She said the drones would allow the livability team and social workers to find camps that are not easily spotted. She said these camps are also the ones that are in zones with more "potential for catastrophic fire," because they are embedded in bushes.

County Administrator, Danny Jordan, offered the option of fire education to those on the Greenway as an alternative to the removal of the encampments.

Dyer expressed support for drone monitoring saying that though technology comes with some loss of privacy, its benefits outway the concerns.

"Technology is a double-edged sword, we know that we balance what the public utility is for these uses," he said noting that there are cameras currently monitoring the valley for smoke and people support those though they could also be seen as a privacy issue.

"There is a fire issue, we know that, we've had large fires that have started on the Greenway," he said. "There is a problem that if we can address it in some small way to reduce that problem I think that is a public utility that warrants what small loss of privacy may result from this."

Commissioner Bob Strosser agreed.

"I don't feel that this is overly intrusive on balance," he said. "We are making exceptions during COVID but we do need to know where the people are located along the Greenway and we do need to know whether things are being done safely and if we even had to evacuate them."

Roberts however maintained that the use of drones was an excessive invasion of privacy and said she felt that though the drones were being proposed as fire monitors she feared the Greenway Sweeps was also "a big motivating force for having this program."

Ultimately commissioners decided to report back to RVCOG that they support the initiative but not unanimously.

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