When veteran wildlands firefighter Allen Mitchell wants to check on a wildfire's behavior, he looks for help from above — above the tallest tree and even beyond the highest peaks to at least 300 miles above the Earth.

When veteran wildlands firefighter Allen Mitchell wants to check on a wildfire's behavior, he looks for help from above — above the tallest tree and even beyond the highest peaks to at least 300 miles above the Earth.

A U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire and fuels specialist for the agency's Medford District, Mitchell opens his laptop computer, types out a few instructions and pulls up information indicating the fire's direction — in the form of a plume — as well as real-time weather updates from satellites orbiting 300 to 600 miles overhead.

"When I started out in fire 25 years ago, we had none of this," says Mitchell, 45, who hails from Butte Falls. "Before, we relied on a lot of local geographic knowledge and a fireman's map. That was about it. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of it."

He is among local BLM and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest employees who regularly use computers out in the field. They can now reach into their cyberspace tool bags to work on everything from cruising (measuring) timber to stream restoration.

It might seem counterintuitive, but computers are vital to working in today's forests, according to Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District.

"We use computers with GIS and GPS data to collect everything from stream boundaries to spotted owl habitat," he says, referring to geographic information and global positioning systems. "Our law enforcement people carry computers in their rigs."

Patty Burel, spokeswoman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, agrees that computers are used in most fieldwork in some capacity.

"The upper-level folks in fire even carry lift-up laptops in their rigs to access current weather and watch smoke plumes via satellite in real time now," she says.

Computers have made fieldwork more efficient and precise, observes Tom Sensenig, the U.S. Forest Service's ecologist for southwestern Oregon.

Consider the hand-held computers known as data recorders which resemble big calculators of the past. The sophisticated hand-held devices can pull up GPS information as well as maps, aerial photographs and inventories of a unit a forester is working on, he says.

"As the forester walks through the area, he or she can look at the number of trees per acre and tree species, and measure distances with the data recorder," he says. "At the end of the day, you can see where you were on the map. It is much more efficient and accurate."

If a forester is measuring the amount of timber in a unit, the device is ideal for entering the required data, such as tree height and diameter, he says.

"Upon returning to the office, it can all be downloaded," he says. "When I was a forester, it was done with pencil and pad. And all the data was calculated manually with calculators on your desk, crunching numbers."

In addition to the hand-held computers, Sensenig is impressed with the abilities of a laptop that plugs into the cigarette lighter of a vehicle in the field.

Software from the LIDAR (light detection and ranging) system uses laser images from an airplane to call up a real-life map of an area, he says.

"The LIDAR can map the surface of the vegetation so precisely that every single tree is mapped," he says. "Using that data, you can zoom into every single tree.

"That means if you want to look at a single piece of vegetation in the 700 square miles of the (2002) Biscuit fire, you can zoom in on it," he adds.

It works somewhat like sonar, albeit using light waves instead of sound waves, he explains.

"It's somewhat difficult to differentiate species very accurately, but if you've seen enough you can begin to determine whether, for example, you are looking at pine or cedar," he says.

The software is excellent for showing canopy openings and closures, helpful information for determining spotted owl habitat, he notes.

"With LIDAR, you can measure everything 100 percent," he says. "There is no extrapolating from a little plot to the landscape. It's so accurate that tree growth, in terms of increased height from 2004 to 2007, can be measured in inches."

This summer the LIDAR system will be used to look at plots in areas burned by the Biscuit fire, he says.

"One of the things we will be measuring is how much fuel has recruited back on the landscape inside the fire," he says. "We want to determine when there is a risk of another fire."

Much of the computer implementation is relatively recent, Mitchell says. For instance, it has only been in the past three years that the BLM has been able to obtain wireless cards powerful and fast enough to make computer work practical, he says.

"We tried this about six years ago and they (cards) were so slow," he says. "With the new card I've got now we have pretty good coverage."

Computers are useful when the agency is doing controlled burns to improve forest health or reduce the potential for catastrophic fires come the hot summer months, he says.

"In the past, when you were planning a controlled burn, you put in the spot-weather forecast the night before you burned, then go out the next morning," he says. "If you didn't have cell coverage or anything, you couldn't verify the forecast. Their models are useful but not always right. The weather often changes in a few hours."

Getting weather conditions right is essential when it comes to controlled burns, he says, noting that smoke blowing into a populated area is bad news.

"Smoke management is a huge thing for this area," he says. "By getting updated spot weather with the use of computers, we can better manage our smoke."

Knowing precise weather information, including approaching fronts, thunder cells and cloud banks, also makes their work safer when it comes to either controlled burns or wildfires, he says.

"It makes it easier and safer if we are able to get weather information in real time," he says. "That eliminates a big surprise factor."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.