New camera sees through smoke, fire |

New camera sees through smoke, fire

Matt Zalaznick

In May, an electrical fire erupted in a first floor wall of the Windstream Condominiums in East Vail. By the time all residents had safely evacuated and firefighters hacked through the roof and found the source of the vicious blaze, several apartments had been destroyed.

But Vail firefighters have just acquired a high-tech, thermal imaging camera that should enable them to more quickly spot the source of flames, potentially saving lives, homes and valuables, Fire Chief John Gulick says.

“With the camera, we could have seen the fire burning between the walls, where it was hidden from view,” Gulick said. “But without the camera, the only way for us to find the fire was by tearing out a piece of the wall, which was time consuming and allowed the fire to grow.”

With the camera, firefighters would have been able to peer into the concealed spaces where the fire was growing undetected, Gulick said.

The $13,000, hand-held thermal imaging camera, which was purchased through donations, can spot hidden fires and sources of heat, including human bodies concealed by smoke or walls.

“You can go in and virtually look through the smoke,” Gulick said. “You can look behind beds, in closets, in bathrooms, or detect a victim lying on the floor. Under those conditions, you have very little time to potentially save a life.”

The hand-held camera, which is carried into a fire by a firefighter, displays a black and white image of the room. On the image, different intensities of heat and fire are shaded different colors. The camera is extremely heat resistant and also focuses automatically.

“The main goal is to detect the heat given off by a human body in a room, obscured by heavy smoke,” Gulick said.

The thermal camera can also detect hot spots in brush or tree fires.

The camera works by reconfiguring and restoring images in darkness, in dense smoke or other light alterations that hinder vision, Gulick said.

“And when the fire is out, it can detect hot spots that are still burning,” he said.

No one was hurt in the fire at the 18-unit Windstream Condominiums on Columbine Road. But several residents were left homeless when their apartments were destroyed. The fire, which broke out shortly after midnight, May 2, did more than $1 million in damage.

Investigators determined the blaze was caused by an electrical short between two walls on the first floor.

“The camera will be an important tool in fighting fires,” Gulick said. “Our firefighters will be able detect people or things not seen with the naked eye, plus navigate in and out of dark buildings more effectively.”

The purchase of the camera was funded by a $5,000 donation from part-time Vail resident William J. Dore Sr., along with contributions from the Evergreen Lodge, Eagle County Firefighter’s Benefit, the Teva Mountain Games at Vail, First Data Corporation and the annual Vail Fire Fighters Association Golf Tournament.

Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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