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Oregon Officials Replace Human Lookouts With Cameras To Spot Wildfires


Forest managers are turning to video technology to help them spot wildfires before they get out of control. That means that they're turning away from fire lookouts who sit atop towers. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher reports.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Eric Borg peeks out the window of the Tamarack fire tower that overlooks the Umatilla National Forest in Central Oregon. I shout up to him.

Hi there. Do you mind if we come up?

ERIC BORG: Come on up.

PEACHER: The tower is as tall as a 10-story building. From the ground, it looks like a tiny shack on spindly metal legs.

This is one of about 2,500 fire towers in the U.S. Only about 800 of those are still staffed. Eric Borg, the lookout, lifts a heavy metal door to let me into the seven-by-seven-foot room.

I suppose everyone's out of breath once they come up here.

BORG: Yeah.


BORG: That's my StairMaster.

PEACHER: (Laughter).

The tower has 360-degree view showing miles of forested peaks and river canyons. Borg raises his binoculars to look for wildfires. Today, there's no smoke.

BORG: That's Happy Jack Ridge right there. Ant Hill's right behind it and little Tamarack right here.

PEACHER: Borg has caught six fires so far this season. He's in a long line of lookouts who have staffed this tower since 1936. But that could soon change.

BORG: What we do works, you know? It'd be a shame to see it stop.

PEACHER: It does work, but technology might work better. The Oregon Department of Forestry will soon replace the lookouts like Borg with specialized video cameras.

TRACY WROLSON: In the end, when technology becomes - a certain point where it can do a better job, you have to look at that.

PEACHER: Tracy Wrolson is with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He says the new system is more than just a camera on top of a tall pole. The video is connected to special software that can recognize a tree that's on fire from one that's not.

WROLSON: The computer system actually detects the smokes. They pinpoint smokes. They send notifications out.

PEACHER: The software also sends notifications when lightning strikes. The technology's already being used in Canada, Australia, parts of California and here in Southwest Oregon.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: We made contact with an individual (unintelligible).

PEACHER: Cheyanne Hemphill is one of two young women sitting in front of a bank of screens at a fire detection center in Roseburg.

CHEYANNE HEMPHILL: Right now we have 29 cameras split between us two, so I'm looking at half of them.

PEACHER: The Douglas Forest Protective Association installed cameras at lookouts several years ago. Now six people do the job of 15 former lookouts. Today, most of the screens show foggy green hills. Some of the camera lenses are splattered with raindrops.

HEMPHILL: It's going to be a pretty slow day. I don't think there's going to be any smoke.

PEACHER: The software will alert Hemphill if it does think it sees smoke. But sometimes, a cloud or a lawnmower that kicks up a bunch of dust will trigger an alert. That's why people still need to watch the video feed. Kyle Reed with the Douglas Forest Protective Association says the cameras have other helpful features.

KYLE REED: We can actually pan, tilt, zoom here at the office. We can change some of the features to help see the smoke better or, you know, enhance the image a little bit.

PEACHER: Agency officials can log onto the system from a smart phone or a tablet to check on a fire hundreds of miles away. And unlike humans, the cameras can detect smoke in the dark. Ultimately, Tracy Wrolson says the system is about proactive fire management, and the cameras will save taxpayer dollars over time.

WROLSON: If you just catch one fire that would be a multimillion dollar fire, you've more than paid for that system already.

PEACHER: The new cameras go online in Central Oregon next year. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in Grant County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.