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Remotely-Monitored Video Cameras Replacing Some Human Fire Lookouts

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this photo taken Saturday, June 19, 2011, a hiker descends the fire lookout-topped summit of Lookout Mountainnear Twisp, Washington.

Remotely-monitored video cameras are replacing some human fire lookouts on mountaintops around the Northwest.

A private nonprofit called the Douglas Forest Protective Association was the first in the region to switch to remote camera fire detection. The southwest Oregon-based association deployed its first system in 2007.

Credit Courtesy of DFPA
Courtesy of DFPA
These remotely-monitored cameras scan for forest fires from a historic fire lookout in Douglas County, Oregon.

The firefighting consortium's Kyle Reed said it has now replaced all of its manned fire lookouts with video cameras.

"We have 30 cameras that are monitored here out of our office in Roseburg. That is done by a staff of about six or seven people," said Reed, a fire prevention specialist. "In years past, you've had to have at least one lookout for every tower and probably half as many again to relieve those people as well. So there is quite a savings there."

Reed said his association's detection center now monitors smoke cameras not just for its own private timberlands, but also on contract to the U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Forestry.

Reed added his South Africa-based camera vendor is fine tuning software to automatically detect forest fires in the video feed around the clock.

Reed estimated a $50,000 to $80,000 cost to install and connect a smoke camera on a new tower built from the ground up on a mountaintop. If a camera system can be placed on top of a historic fire lookout with existing power and telecomm connectivity, then the cost comes way down to $5,000 to $10,000.

Credit Kevin Mooney

The website for Envirovision Solutions LLC lists the effective range of its ForestWatch camera system as 15 miles. The company has also deployed the remote fire detection system in Alberta, Canada, Europe and its home turf of South Africa.

Throughout the West, the majority of historic lookouts are unstaffed during fire season due to budget constraints or decay. Some manned fire lookouts have given way to aerial fire detection using spotters in planes.

Related story: Photographer On Mission To Capture Wash. State's Fire Lookouts

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.