How Detecting Wildfires Is Both High-Tech And Low-Tech

Published: Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 2:54pm
Updated: Wednesday, July 4, 2018 - 9:33am
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Wildfires start as a line of smoke, snaking through the treetops into the sky. If no one's around to see it, well, they can get big before help is on the way.

That's why lookouts across the state dutifully climb the steps to their posts in isolated towers. There, they scan the tree line for any sign of fire — patiently — hour after hour.

Believe it or not, in this day and age this method is still relied on by firefighters and other agencies.

At its peak, Arizona had 120 of these towers, 75 of which are still stand today, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. Only about half are used during the fire season, but are crucial to forest safety.

The Show caught up with Shirley Payne, a longtime lookout at Baker Butte lookout tower, to talk about her day-to-day job. She'll be up there through this season, with her trusty dog, Jeffrey.

On the more high-tech side of the spectrum, there are also people trying to figure out how we can use technology to improve the way we detect wildfires.

For one example, The Show spoke with with Murong He, a recent graduate of Arizona State University. Last semester, she and two other students worked on a project that uses artificial intelligence to detect wildfires before they grow.

It’s a project that hits home for her. When He was still in high school, in 2007, she had to evacuate with her parents when several wildfires hit Southern California.

The project, called "Prometheus," took fourth place in the Microsoft Imagine Cup in May. He and her team compete for $100,000 from Microsoft in August.

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