Eric Borg peeked out the window of the Tamarack fire tower that overlooks the Umatilla National Forest in Central Oregon. The tower looked like a tiny metal shack on spindly legs 120 feet above, or as high as a 10 story building.
He was at one of about 25 fire tower lookouts maintained by the Oregon Department of Forestry. For decades, land managers have relied on fire tower lookouts like Borg to keep an eye on the horizon. These observers have offered a bird’s eye view of the forest during fire season.
But soon, the Oregon Department of Forestry will phase out human lookouts in exchange for highly sensitive video cameras. The cameras have the potential to change how agencies detect fires nationwide.
So Borg could be facing both his first, and his last, season doing this job.
Working from a tower with a 360-degree window view, looking out on miles of forested peaks and river canyons, Borg raised his binoculars. He saw no smoke.
“That’s Happy Jack Ridge right there,” he said, pointing to a tree-covered hill. “Ant Hill is right behind it. Little Tamarack right here.”
Borg is one of the last in a long line of lookouts who have staffed this tower since off and on since 1936, watching for fires. “I don’t want to see these things get closed,” he said.
But seasonal lookouts cost the Oregon Department of Forestry about $15,000 to $20,000 each. Tracy Wrolson, assistant district forester for ODF’s Central Oregon district, said replacing people with cameras will save taxpayer dollars over time.
“In the end, when technology becomes to a certain point where it could do a better job you have to look at that,” Wrolson said.
The cameras and the software cost just a few thousand dollars each. The cost can be much higher if ODF has to build a new tower for the camera, but often cameras can be mounted to existing towers.
“None of us ever like to see our coworkers be replaced with something else,” Wrolson said. “But business models over the years have adapted to that.
Ultimately, Wrolson said, the system is about proactive fire management.
“If you just catch one fire that would be a multi-million dollar fire you’ve more than paid for that system already,” he said.
Camera Monitors: The New Lookouts
The new fire detection technology is already being used in Canada, Australia, parts of California, and in Southwest Oregon.
In Roseburg one day in August, Cheyanne Hemphill was one of two young women sitting in front of a bank of screens at a fire detection center.
The Douglas Forest Protective Association began replacing human lookouts with cameras several years ago. Now, six people monitor cameras at the center, doing the jobs of 15 former lookouts in the field.
“Right now we have twenty-nine cameras split between us two,” Hemphill said. “So I’m looking at half of them.”
Most of the screens showed foggy, forested hills. Some of the camera lenses were splattered with rain drops.
”It’s gonna be a pretty slow day,” Hemphill said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any smoke.”
She would get an alert if the software saw smoke. But the system isn’t perfect. Sometimes, a cloud or a lawnmower that kicks up dust will trigger an alert.
Even so, Kyle Reed with the Douglas Forest Protective Association said, the cameras add to the tools available for fire management.
“We can actually pan, tilt, zoom,” Reed said, describing the camera’s functions. “Here at the office we can change some of the features to see the smoke better or enhance the image a little bit.”
Agency officials can log on to the system from a smartphone or tablet to check on a fire. The cameras also have night vision to detect fires in the dark.
Fire Towers In Oregon History
Fire towers and lookouts have been an important part of forest history and land management in the West for a century. A national group that advocates for the preservation of fire towers is skeptical that cameras can do the job of lookouts.
“The best thing out in the forest is human eyes,” said Howard Zerschoor, a former lookout and the Oregon director of the Oregon chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. “No camera or satellite can replace human eyes.”
According to the Forest Fire Lookout Association, throughout Oregon history there have been 1,019 lookout sites in the state. Some are owned and operated by state agencies, others by national forests. Today, 208 fire towers remain standing. More than a dozen of those are rented out for use by the public, which helps defray the costs of maintenance.
The Tamarack lookout is on the list for getting a camera, but other towers will come first. That means that Eric Borg could be back for at least one more season.
He said he’s not convinced that he and other lookouts will be so easily replaced.
“What we do works,” Borg said. “It’d be a shame to see it stop.”
Former lookout Zerschoor said he hopes that agencies can preserve the physical fire tower lookouts, even if they can’t preserve these jobs.
“We’re losing history,” he said. “If we can’t save the structure, we at least want to save the history of them. In some areas the cameras are just going to take over, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”