Technology can't replace lookouts completely

Technological advancements such as aerial surveillance and camera arrays have nibbled away at the number of staffed fire lookouts that once dotted the high peaks in southwestern Oregon.

Many of the old structures are used as unstaffed remote camera fire detection sites or as rentals to weekend campers each summer.

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But staffed fire lookouts, whose use began more than a century ago, remain a viable and relatively inexpensive way to keep a human in the fire detection loop, according to both the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.

"Having a person on a lookout tower is still one of the most reliable ways to spot fires," said Brian Ballou, spokesman for ODF's Southwest Oregon District.

"There is really no single way to detect new fire starts," he said. "Sometimes a lookout gets swamped with smoke, or they can see east but not west because of the smoke or clouds."

As a result, the agencies also have turned to aircraft — both airplanes and helicopters — as well as cameras to watch for wildfires, he said.

But a person at a fixed position can report such things as changing fire behavior and wind conditions as well as slope, topography and other vital information, officials said.

The district once had about 30 fire lookouts in the two counties, but now staffs only six, including Round Top, White Point, Soda Mountain and Robinson Butte in Jackson County and Little Grayback and Mount Sexton in Josephine County.

Three other lookouts are equipped with cameras, including Tallowbox in Jackson and Manzanita and Sexton in Josephine. Sexton is unique in that it has both a person and cameras watching for fire starts, Ballou noted.

Over on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which once had dozens of staffed fire lookouts, three fire lookouts are being staffed full time this fire season while others are staffed as needed.

"The lookouts are still a very important part of our fire detection system as well as our airborne reconnaissance," said forest spokesman Paul Galloway.

Like Ballou, he noted that having more than one way of monitoring for infant wildfires has shown to be the best approach. Both the ODF and Forest Service share their information when it comes to wildfires, he added.

The forest is currently staffing Rustler Peak and Halls Point in the High Cascades Ranger District and Dutchman Peak on the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District, he said.

"We have others we will staff when we have a threat of lightning," he said, noting that includes Hershberger Mountain and Squaw Peak lookouts.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or

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