Hundreds of historic lookout cabins perch on top of ridgelines and craggy peaks across the Northwest, and have become popular places for hikers to spend the night, but a handful of them are still staffed by people who watch for columns of smoke after lightning storms.
In Central Oregon, lightning has ignited more than 30 fires in the last 24 hours, and forecasters say there is a high risk that large fires will develop this weekend east of the Cascades. A few dedicated people working long hours in isolated lookout cabins are keeping an eye on the situation there.
The Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center coordinates initial fire attack on close to 5 million acres of forest and grassland in central Oregon, and still relies on staffed lookout cabins. Spokeswoman Kern says the dispatch center works with "about 10" lookouts. She says the dispatch center monitors where lightning is striking, and then asks the lookouts to search for smoke in those areas.
"They're also going to want to know what the smoke looks like. Is it wispy, is it white, is it black? If it's black, that's a little bit different, because if it's black smoke, you're starting to torch trees, and you're having a bigger energy release," she says.
Kern says the lookouts can often pinpoint the location of a fire within 100 feet and relay the location to firefighters. The dispatch center also uses tips from the public and reconnaissance flights to locate new fires, but having staff and volunteers spotting fires from the ground helps keep down the cost of aerial surveillance.
This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.