Technology replaces humans at forest fire lookouts

Technology replaces humans at forest fire lookouts
Fire lookout on Tolmie Peak, Mount Rainier National Park.

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — The number of staffed forest fire lookouts keeps dwindling in Oregon, Washington and California as technology replaces human eyes.

The Medford Mail Tribune reports that of Oregon's 1,000 lookout sites, fewer than 20 percent have structures and 106 are staffed.

The number is smaller in Washington state where only 30 lookouts are staffed.

The Evergreen State has 625 lookout sites, but just 107 buildings left standing.

California has 50 staffed lookouts out of nearly 200 buildings available.

Advancements in technology such as cameras and aerial surveillance have replaced staffed lookouts.

Many of the structures are now rented to hikers, and some are used as remote fire detection sites employing a camera array.

But cameras can't replace human knowledge.

"We think there is a place for both," says Dan Thorpe, Oregon Department of Forestry forester and a veteran wildland firefighter. "Camera detection sites provide a tremendous amount of information, but it is probably a few years out before we will have that information on computer screens for firefighters on the ground. Fire lookouts (people) not only provide immediate detection but information we can't get from a citizen calling it in — fire behavior, slope, topography."

On the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest District, where once there were about 30 lookouts, only four are staffed. That includes Soda Mountain, Round Top and White Point in Jackson County, and Little Grayback Mountain in southern Josephine County.

At the Klamath National Forest, there's now only eight staffed sites out of 22 in 1959.

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Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/