HOWARD BUTTE — Fire detection has come a long way in the 75 years since Smokey the Bear was first created to remind us, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
In fact, it now includes technology almost unimaginable when Smokey was created in 1944. The first Smokey was an imaginary bear for an ad campaign, but after an orphaned bear cub was found after a 1950 wildfire in New Mexico, he was adopted by the USDA Forest Service to add life to the wildfire prevention effort.
In his original day, fire lookout towers and public reports were the prime detection efforts. Today, alongside a wooden lookout tower built in 1946 on 4,319-foot-tall Howard Butte stands a 110-foot-tall metal tower topped by a 360-degree, high-definition camera. It gives a 20-mile view to detect smoke visible from its perch in western Wallowa County, said Matt Howard, unit forester for the Wallowa Unit of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The towers stand on 2 acres of land deeded to the ODF by what was then the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Co. for the purpose of establishing a lookout. Also there is communications equipment serving the ODF, state and county agencies powered by a line from Pacific Power and Light, Howard said.
The ACTi i96 PTZ camera completes a full rotation in about 15 minutes. If smoke is detected, an alert is sent via a microwave signal west to Mount Emily and down to La Grande, where the signal is relayed to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville. Once notified of an alert, the center views the image sent by the camera and then contacts the appropriate response units to check it out.
Howard said that since the camera was installed in July, there have been several alerts but all have proven to be legal burns.
Although the state-of-the-art camera is the latest technology, it’s by no means a “silver bullet” and they won’t replace human eyes, he said.
“We just like having it in our tool box of different tools” for detecting fires, Howard said.
That “tool box” includes a partnership the ODF has developed with the U.S. Forest Service, Wallowa County and other state agencies.
Paul Karvoski, fire chief for the county and the city of Enterprise, works closely with the ODF and hopes to see additional cameras located in the county.
“I can’t say enough about it,” he said on the one on Howard Butte. “I’d like to get three or four more in the county.”
In particular, he’d like to see one established on Courtney Butte overlooking Troy, which was nearly destroyed by the Grizzly Fire in August 2015.
Nathan Goodrich, U.S. Forest Service fire management officer for the Wallowa Valley Ranger District of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest based in Joseph, said there are no such cameras in his area. Although there are lookout towers, they are lacking in basic infrastructure required for a camera, such as power lines, cables, hardware and line-of-sight connections to which the microwave dishes can transmit.
“We’ve been looking at those (cameras) for some time now, but they’re pretty spendy to get into,” he said. “They’ve shown to be pretty successful.”
But Goodrich is relatively satisfied with his lookout towers that are manned during the peak fire season from June to October.
“They’re invaluable,” he said. “You can’t talk to a camera and get more information.”
Goodrich said he’d like to see a camera on Mount Ireland on the Grant-Baker County line “if we come into a little extra money.”
For now, Howard Butte has northeast Oregon’s only fire detection camera. Howard said another is planned in Umatilla County, likely by next spring. Another is being considered for Baker County. He said such cameras are used in other areas of the state and other states, though he didn’t have statistics on those.
But the cameras don’t come cheap. The one on Howard Butte, since there already was a communications tower there, cost about $60,000, Howard said. To erect one where there is no tower, the price increases by another $50,000 to $75,000.
Howard said his unit has an annual budget of about $900,000, about half of which comes from a landowner assessment and half from the state’s general fund. Oregon even has an insurance policy with Lloyds of London to cover fire-suppression costs — the only state in the Union with such a policy. Howard said he believes that’s because Lloyds determined Oregon a “good risk.”
“We don’t ever run out of money because we have so many layers of funding to cover it,” he said.