In a small room in the Douglas Forest Protective Association office building, the counters and walls are covered with 25 computer screens and sprawling maps. Watching the screens are six women who are doing their part to protect their section of the state of Oregon from forest fires.
Chelsea Arney, the Detection Center supervisor, scans her six computer screens in search of smoke among the trees. As images from 28 cameras placed in her district from Brookings north to Sweet Home pass across the screens, she scrutinizes each square.
Arney, 26, has been with DFPA for five years now, four with the Detection Center. Her department consists of five other women, who each rotate through in groups of four during the 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily routine, all with the same task of searching for signs of smoke and fire on the screens.
Fortunately for the crew, this season has been especially slow for fires, but they do expect things to pick up toward the middle of the month.
“It just kind of varies from year to year. Over the last couple years we’ve been really hot and heavy with fires by this point, but this year we’re back to closer to the normal fire season in terms of fires and acres burnt for this time of year,” DFPA Fire Prevention Specialist Kyle Reed said.
The detection crew scans the screens seven days a week and can even monitor at night with a tool called night masking. When overlaid, the tool allows viewers to survey the area where different colored lights denote known lights and new ones.
“If that’s a known light that’s there all the time,” Arney said, pointing to a white spot on her otherwise black screen, “then, that would turn green. But anything red, is a fire, something you’ll know isn’t supposed to be there.”
The 28 cameras scan the valleys, hills and mountains in the DFPA’s sector, overlooking nearly 10 million acres.
The DFPA Detection Center has already been the first to spot 10 fires in the state this year, adding onto an impressive 14 first reports last year. But Arney said the crew is expecting many more through the rest of this fire season.
“The girls are on it this year,” Arney said with a laugh.
If she does see a fire, the Detection Center employee will click to zoom on the area. The camera is powerful enough to capture vast ranges of forest all the way down to snapshotting a license plate. With that click, the computer will identify the township and range of where the fire is on the map and the employee will let that county’s dispatch center know.
As though this weren’t high enough tech, soon the detection jobs will take another step into the future.
The DFPA is currently working with the Advanced Fire Information System to begin integrating satellite imagery into their system.
“When we started down this road 10 years ago, we thought that the cameras were an interim step to satellite technology for detection. But we’re not there yet,” Staff Forester Pat Skrip said. “So, they’ve married them up, and satellite imagery is going to enhance what we do here and what our cameras do will enhance the confirmation of the satellites.”
Working together, the satellites and cameras will help the detection crew to form a more exact idea of where a fire is in relation to the closest cameras, possible spread and more all on one centralized information dashboard. The satellite captures a heat signature of the flame, while cameras provide a close-up view.
But the innovation doesn’t end there.
AFIS also has a crowd-sourcing app where users can register their cell phones and share photos of the flames on the ground in their area. The information is shared with the detection agency, which allows them to have eyes where the cameras are not.
“A lot of times, we don’t see the column until it breaks the ridge, we can’t see the base,” Skrip said. “So, a picture is 1,000 words.”
Where the technology falters though, the women of the Detection Center take over.
“It still takes the human element to differentiate between dust, shadow, smoke,” Skrip said. “The software is only trying to imitate what we do. We just do it better.”