When it comes to wildfires, finding them fast can mean the difference between a 25-acre blaze and a fire that burns for weeks.
Part of the job of finding those fires before they get too big falls on spotters perched in fire lookout towers. But technology is also helping to spot new smokes.
At the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Redmond detection center, staff watch over the landscape with cameras that are mounted atop towers on high points around the state.
“All fires are verified by a human heartbeat, a human person that looks at them,” said Jamie Paul, ODF’s camera coordinator for the state.
No, cameras aren’t new. They’ve been in use in other parts of the state for over a decade. The Douglas Forest Protection Association in Southwest Oregon was an early adopter.
“And when we saw how effective it was for them, the Southwest Oregon District was the next to pick them up,” said Paul.
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The cameras have spread like — well — wildfire.
“It came down to funding and it was kind of proof of concept. And so we needed to build the infrastructure,” said Paul.
The legislature helped fund an expansion through a senate bill in 2021.
“These cameras statewide catch 25% of the fires at initial detection,” said Paul.
“Where our cameras are more remote, a lot of times, they’re our first detection just because there’s not as many eyes out in the forest or the lands that ODF protects,” said Guy Chamness, the center’s assistant manager.
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These remote smoke detectors can do more than just watch.
“You can go back to use the cameras to try to pinpoint when the fire actually started,” said Chamness.
“It can go straight to mobile devices or tablets in an engine or aircraft,” said Paul.
“It’s absolutely critical and very helpful to our firefighters to have an extra set of eyes,” said Ben Duda, Prineville and Sisters Unit Forester.
Some fear the digital devices will replace the analog.
“No, no not at all. I think it’s going to augment and dial that in. There’s still lookouts in the forest that we coordinate with,” said Duda.
That includes an ODF-staffed lookout on Henkle Butte northeast of Sisters.
But over the years, the agency has placed cameras on decommissioned lookout sites. While there are a lot of bells and whistles, it doesn’t have a Siri or Alexa to sound the alarm.
“It’s the human being, the heart beat, that makes the decisions about an alert,” said Paul.
The detection specialist can watch up to a dozen cameras with software cycling through a 360-degree view.
Fire managers call them another tool in the toolbox.
“One fire can go over $1 million so quickly, so the work these folks do here in the detection center is really really important,” said Paul.
With extreme drought conditions around much of the state, more of these will hopefully save more land and lives from wildfire.
ODF will continue to build out their network of cameras around the central and eastern parts of the state. They opened a detection center in La Grande that will monitor those digital eyes in the sky over Northeast Oregon.