Deschutes County

Behind-the-scenes look at a fire lookout

Tech can't fully replace eyes scanning horizon for smoke

Busy times for Lava Butte Lookout

BEND, Ore. - A lot of people watched the storms roll through today and with the high-risk of fire, the fire lookouts have an important job, like the one whose job is to scan the horizon atop Lava Butte, south of Bend.

"I take an exceptional pride in the job, because I don't want anything to burn up. This is my home," Joe Hodgson, who has been a lookout for 18 years, said Tuesday.

When you think of lookouts, you usually think of something way out in the forest. But as Hodgson explained, "Lava Butte is right here, we got the city, we got all this urban interface, so it's kind of a high stress/low stress situation."

It's a job Hodgson doesn't take lightly. Besides looking for fire, he also has to consider the safety of people visiting the butte.

Hodgson recalled a recent time when their safety was at risk.

"We had a storm coming in, it was dropping lighting," he said. "There was about 100 people, and I'm yelling at them. Then, all of a sudden -- booooom!"  

Tuesday was similar: You could see the storm rolling in, the wind was blowing and the rain falling.

With fire a huge concern, it's the next step that matters most.

"It's all about time here. you have to make a decision and call it in and give an accurate location," Hodgson said.

That can be tricky, so when dispatch reports a fire or smoke, Hodgson uses specific tools to find the actual location.

While technology is advancing rapidly, there is a computer system that detects the smoke and where it is. But, as Hodgon explained, "If you can't see the base of the fire, you have to go old school."

Which is where his expertise come in.

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