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Looking Out For Fire The Old Fashioned Way

Evening Edition

Above: Two of the most destructive wildfires in San Diego County history ravaged San Diego County communities in late October. Wildfires in 2003 and 2007 helped fuel an ongoing push to develop better and more sophisticated firefighting tools. KPBS Business and Environment Reporter Erik Anderson says technology is being applied in innovative ways, but it has yet to squeeze out one fire detection method that has served firefighters for decades.

— Two of the most destructive wildfires in San Diego County history ravaged local communities in late October, and this week's Santa Ana wind conditions are a reminder that a destructive wildfire could happen again. That threat is fueling a constant push to update firefighting tools.

Aired 10/26/12 on KPBS News.

Wildfires in 2003 and 2007 helped fuel an ongoing push to develop better and more sophisticated firefighting tools, but that drive has yet to squeeze out one fire detection method that has served firefighters for decades.

The latest weapon in San Diego's fire fighting arsenal is an infrared camera mounted on the bottom of a plane. The electronic eye can look down at a fire scene and peek through clouds of smoke to search out a wildfire's flames. Other technologies exploit high-speed internet connections, according to San Diego Gas & Electric's David Weber.

"We looked at this map and it was mostly red to show how hot," he said.

Weber showed off high tech maps, which include a sophisticated weather tracking system. But sometimes the newest high tech tool isn't the best.

Los Pinos Lookout Tower
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Above: Los Pinos Lookout Tower

Cleveland National Forest firefighters still search for flames in a wide swath of southern San Diego County the same way they've done it since the 1920s -- from a metal tower perched on a peak near Lake Moreno. The Los Pinos Lookout sits about 4,800 feet above sea level.

"This tower works because you can see everything from it," said Jason Kraling, Cleveland National Forest battalion chief. "You can see all the way to the beach. You can see several miles into Mexico. Imperial County, out into the desert lands where they farm and do their burning and then you can see all the way to the San Jaciento Mountains and the San Bernardino."

Norm Mitchell spends five days a week here on this wind-swept perch.

Norm Mitchell
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Above: Norm Mitchell

"It feels like home," said Mitchell.

He cooks, cleans, eats and sleeps here, but most importantly Mitchell watches for signs of smoke.

"I scan, I scan the ridgetops. There are places that are more inclined to burn then others. And I concentrate in the wilderness," said Mitchell.

When he sees a wisp of smoke rising out of a valley, Mitchell turns to the barrel-sized disk that dominates the middle of the tower room. The Osborne Fire Finder is a tool lookouts use to pinpoint areas that might be the beginning of a wildfire. It has sights on either side and a map on top of the disk.

"All I would do is put this vertical string down the center of it, as a line of sight. So that I could put it on the map," said Mitchell.

The fire finder and a spotter do something even the best cameras can not do. While cameras can see smoke on the horizon, they can not give the precise locations, correctly and quickly, like an efficient fire spotter can.

Mitchell grew up in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and he was drawn to this tower's remote location. For eight years, he hiked 12 miles to get here and five days later 12 miles to get home. There's a paved road now and the surrounding wilderness has recreation areas, so there are a few more visitors.

Norm Mitchell scanning the countryside for signs of smoke.
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Above: Norm Mitchell scanning the countryside for signs of smoke.

"We got this in here which is the Espinosa," said Mitchell as he points to the valley just west of the tower. "No motor vehicles in there. Mountain bikes and hiking. Horses, if they choose to."

Mitchell turns his attention south near Lake Morena. "This is four-by-four rock crawling, and two-wheeling. Single track trailer, trail off-roading," he said.

There may be more people than when Mitchell started working here, but he said it is still backcountry. And the backcountry's beauty carries a price.

"Peaceful. Rough. Dangerous. This is nature. This is beautiful. And people get hung up in it sometimes. And they get hurt. They get overtaken by the extreme that this is in here," said Mitchell.

There used to be thousands of lookout towers in the west, according to the Cleveland National Forest's Jason Krayling. Technology, pollution and tight budgets conspired to shut many of them down. But the Los Pinos Lookout has endured, he said, because Mitchell and others are so good at their jobs.

"They look down at it all day. They know the peaks. They know the roads. They know the trails," said Krayling. "And when you stare at something long enough, they know what is not supposed to be there."

Los Pinos is not the only lookout tower operating in San Diego County. Volunteer groups have helped restore two others, and there are plans to staff them during fire season. But Los Pinos remains the only professionally staffed lookout tower in Southern California.

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