plane has to jettison its load regardless of the fire's size, because the plane usually does not have enough fuel to carry the fire retardant load back to base.

"If we can keep them on the ground before we get a confirmed fire, it amounts to a lot of saved money," said Amador-El Dorado CDF Captain Dale McGill. "A lot of people call in about fires, but sometimes it's dust, or there is a small fire, and it's not necessarily going to become big fire. Now we analyze the situation and decide if we can keep the aircraft on the ground."

The Firehawk system spots fires at night through an infrared sensor. In one instance during the 2005 fire season, a late-night 911 call reported a fire in the Georgetown area. The caller could not give an exact location so McGill maneuvered the Firehawk camera and found the fire's coordinates.

"Ordinarily we would have to send people in the dark looking around for the fire, and they may not have found it until morning," Holmes said. "It only takes one or two of those situations to pay for itself and prove its usefulness."

Firehawk also lets CDF officials save any data recorded by the system, which can be useful in conducting fire investigations and creating time-lapse photo histories of a fire for critiques, Holmes said.

Furthermore, the Firehawk system can download detection information to observe areas struck by lightning. There are 200 available presets that let the Firehawk camera capture a picture every rotation, allowing CDF officials to target particular danger areas, such as where an arsonist may be working.

Other regional and geographic CDF command centers can link to the Firehawk system through intranet or Internet connections, although they cannot control the camera.

Improving Accuracy

Since budget cuts in the late 1990s forced the CDF to eliminate paid workers from its lookout towers, the CDF has relied on volunteers to staff the towers and people calling to report fires or smoke in forests.

But volunteers often are unreliable, as are citizens calling from cell phones who usually don't know the exact location of a fire. In addition, cell phone service in the mountainous Amador-El Dorado county area is spotty, and some reports of fire have been from controlled burns or dust.

"The lookouts were a tremendous tool for us and I hate to see them go," Holmes said. "We were hoping [Firehawk] is some sort of replacement for us."

For all its initial benefits, however, the Firehawk camera is not as good as a human fire lookout, Holmes said. Experienced live lookouts can better assess a fire than the camera. In addition, the camera has been sensitive to a variety of movement that unnecessarily sets off the alarm, such as trees moving in strong winds and high-powered sprinkler systems.

Because of this, technicians from the South African company have traveled to the CDF headquarters to adjust the camera's sensitivity. Another problem CDF officials have found is that the amount of terrain scanned by one Firehawk camera is very limited.

"There's a lot of river drainages that the camera can't see, so the accuracy is not very good right now," said McGill. "We don't see a lot of terrain, so the more cameras we add, the more we can look into drainages."

Yet having the Firehawk camera watching for fires 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is a great replacement to the unmanned towers, Holmes admitted, especially since human fire lookouts leave their post at 6 p.m.

The yearlong trial period for the Firehawk system expired Aug. 23, but Holmes is requesting an extension from Alasia Marketing until he can secure grant money. He is also seeking grant funding to purchase three additional cameras linked to the Firehawk network.

These cameras would be installed at Heavenly Valley in South Lake Tahoe, Mount Zion in Amador County and Pine Hill in western El Dorado County.

"In the future I think this will be the standard for all lookouts," McGill said. "A lot of people are thinking about getting them now. In the long run you'll see cameras installed at the closed fire lookouts."

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer