Webcams in central Ore. help wildfire spotters

BEND, Ore. (AP) - Two webcams mounted on the top of a new 90-foot communication tower are helping firefighters scan for wildfires in central Oregon.

Crews with Lake Chinook Fire & Rescue will be able to access the camera images from a smartphone or laptop computer, the Bulletin reported.

The webcams provide a 360-degree view of the 40-square-mile district near Lake Billy Chinook and Culver, as well as the edges of the Crooked River National Grasslands, Deschutes National Forest and Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

"It gives us a pretty good view," Lake Chinook Chief Don Colfels told the Bulletin. "No matter where I am at I can pull it up and take a look-see."

The webcams are the first to be used as fire lookouts in Central Oregon, but more are coming, said George Ponte, district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Prineville.

The department has plans for eight webcam lookouts in Grant, Hood River, Wasco and Wheeler counties. At least two could be up and running by the next fire season, the newspaper reported.

For now, the department will rely on human lookouts to scan for wildfires in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties. That may change in the next decade, Ponte said. The department protects private land and public lands not held by the federal government, such as county or state land.

Many of the lookout towers built for humans around the state are deteriorated and the cost of putting in new towers is about $300,000, Ponte said. In contrast, a tower for a webcam costs about $25,000 to $80,000, and they can be installed on existing communication towers.

"These cameras are much less expensive than building a new lookout tower," Ponte told the Bulletin.

The cameras can be used with software designed to scan images for smoke from potential fires, Ponte said.

In Douglas County in southwest Oregon, the Department of Forestry installed webcams about six years ago.

Ponte said they've proved effective in finding potential fires.

"A key to keeping fires small is detecting them early enough," he said.

Colfels, the Lake Chinook Fire chief, agreed. Images from the webcams will be monitored by people rather than computers, however. When a thunderstorm passes over the district, the cameras will be pointed in the direction of any lightning, he said. "We are able to look over the areas that have received strikes," he said.

Neither images from the Lake Chinook nor the Department of Forestry webcams will be available for public view online.

Pine Telephone Systems, which is based in Halfway, donated the webcams to Lake Chinook Fire & Rescue.