Approximately 4,000 fire lookout towers once dotted Western forests, staffed by dedicated lookouts who scanned the surrounding woods for any hint of smoke.
But today, about 400 are in use, largely due to budget constraints and the rise of satellite and spotter plane technology. Some abandoned towers burned, while others became historical sites or lodging for tourists. Now, a new project could make the rest obsolete.
This year, the Nevada Seismological Laboratory deployed a dozen high-definition cameras on mountaintops around the Lake Tahoe Basin (the AlertTAHOE program) and in central and northern Nevada, on both public and private land.
The cameras, which have infrared capabilities and can pan, tilt and zoom, feed time-lapse images to fire department monitors and even home computers. Smoke can be detected much earlier, allowing firefighters to squelch fires sooner and reducing the need for expensive spotter planes, says Graham Kent, director of the lab. Though some regions use analog, closed-circuit cameras, Kent recommends high-tech, digital cameras.
“If you’re not seeing thousands of these cameras in the future, then call up the government and ask why they’re wasting money on other methods,” says Kent, who’s working to get more cameras on remote public lands. “This really is the future of fire observation.”