During the height of the 2003 fire season, Bill Holmes, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) Amador-El Dorado unit, walked with retired CDF Director Bill Teie through the tinder-dry grasses at the unit's Northern California headquarters.

They passed an old, 100-foot-tall lookout tower, empty and unmanned -- a relic of an era when paid CDF staff manned the towers watching for smoke in the surrounding hills. Holmes and his staff only occasionally used the tower to confirm a fire.

Holmes gazed at the lookout tower and the taller communications tower nearby and thought out loud, "It sure would be nice if we had a camera and fire detection system to spot and locate new fires." There is, in fact, a fire detection system in South Africa with cameras connected to a dispatch center, Teie replied.

The proverbial light bulb went on in Holmes' head, and he soon contacted the fire chief in Zululand, South Africa, to learn more about the fire detection system. Holmes found that the Firehawk fire detection system had been used in South Africa for 10 years, and was also being used in Chile, Greece and Canada with successful results.

Through Holmes' diligence in requesting and garnering scarce grant money for the equipment, two fire seasons later, on Aug. 23, 2005, the Firehawk system was installed at the CDF base in Camino, Calif., east of Sacramento.

Technologically Speaking ...

The Firehawk fire detection system consists of a camera mounted on top of the same 160-foot communications tower that Holmes eyed at the Amador-El Dorado Unit headquarters. The distance the camera can see varies with air quality, and whether the camera is looking into the sun. "It's not unusual to see 20 to 30 miles," Holmes said. "The camera spotted a fire in Lincoln one day, which is probably 50 to 60 miles away."

The system also includes a video monitor at the CDF headquarters, and software that detects potential fires. It is the first and only Firehawk system operating in the United States, and the maker, Alasia Marketing, has allowed the CDF to use the Firehawk Forest Watch software free for a year.

One camera, one video monitor, two computer screens, keyboard, joystick and hundreds of feet of cable amounted to $10,000.

The Firehawk camera rotates 360 degrees every three minutes and analyzes 21 vectors, or windows, per rotation, day and night. If the software analyzing the camera data detects changes related to what a fire -- or smoke from a fire -- looks like, it activates an alarm at the CDF dispatch center.

The dispatcher then looks at the Firehawk video monitor's live camera feed and uses a joystick to manually tilt or zoom in the camera to visually check the smoke trail. When the trail is found, the software's computer mapping function uses the camera's images to provide an exact location of the smoke source, down to the street name.

"The dispatcher can move the camera, and zoom in and see if it's a controlled burn on a property or a larger fire," Holmes said. "In the past we had to have somebody come out and look."

Eye of the Hawk

After nearly a year, the Firehawk fire detection system has proved useful, and this fire season, it has detected more than 20 fires, Holmes said.

In July 2005, a 911 call reported a fire at the south fork of the American River, but the U.S. Forest Service could not locate the fire. With the Firehawk camera, however, the Amador-El Dorado CDF dispatcher pinpointed the location.

Firehawk also reduced expenses by helping the CDF station appropriately dispatch resources, especially air tankers loaded with fire retardant, which cost about $7,000 per mission. Many times when an air tanker is dispatched, the

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer