Cal Fire restaffing four lookout towers across Amador, El Dorado counties to help with fire detection

Local News

PILOT HILL, Calif. (KTXL) – This fire season, Cal Fire is bringing back an old tool to supplement the camera technology they currently use to monitor when fires start.

On top of Pilot Hill in El Dorado County, a three-story lookout tower provides a panoramic view nearly 100 miles in every direction.

“It’s a great view and it’s a worthwhile service I believe,” volunteer lookout Michael Davis said. 

But the breathtaking vista serves an important purpose.

“Looking out over the area, scanning, in fact, I’m just going to take a quick scan because fires do pop up that quickly,” Davis said. 

Davis spends about six hours at a time scanning the horizon, looking for smoke.

“So we use binoculars to pinpoint. From there, we would go to our fire finder, that’s this device here, and what that does is helps us locate as far as a direction and also distance,” he explained. “The main thing we’re here for is early detection.”

The tower has been standing since the ‘50s and used as a lookout until the 1990s when Cal Fire began using cameras to detect smoke instead.

“2007, 2008, the lookouts were no longer staffed,” Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado public information officer Diana Swart said.

For years, the building and others like it have sat empty. But now, Cal Fire is restaffing the lookouts so they’ll have more eyes on the horizon when fires do pop up.

“Human eyes are very much better than a camera. Because sometimes in some of those outlying areas, if the camera’s just not pointing in the right direction, it may miss it,” Swart explained.

“Whereas human eyes, we can discern,” Davis said. “We can say that looks like dust or that looks like smoke and make adjustments.”

As California wildfires have become more destructive in recent years, Cal Fire is bringing four lookout towers across Amador and El Dorado counties back online.

“And it’s manned entirely by volunteers from our community, which is really awesome,” Swart said.

Davis said he feels safer knowing someone is up there.

“I would like to contribute to helping out,” Davis said. “And it does give me a little bit better peace of mind to know that somebody might be up here looking out to prevent catastrophic fires that we’ve seen in the past.”

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