Of all state employees, Clinton Weaver may have the best view from his office.
Clinton works as a Forest Lookout for the Oregon Department of Forestry just outside of Sisters, Oregon. He monitors the landscape as part of the integrated and comprehensive fire detection and monitoring program in the agency’s Central Oregon district. As he does, he looks west to Smith Rock State Park and the snow-capped peaks of the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson and their pine-clad slopes. To the east and south, he sees ponderosa pine forests stretching to the horizon amid volcanic hills.
“Life in a lookout tower, most of the time, is pretty boring,” Clinton joked. “I sit here from nine-thirty in the morning to six o’clock at night, on a normal day, and I look 360 degrees around at some of the most beautiful country in the world. But, it’s the same view every day.”
The lookout tower is one of several manned lookouts in Central Oregon. The U.S. Forest Service operates the other manned towers, and they are further complemented by a camera detection system monitored out of Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch center. Together they monitor the vast wilderness that surrounds communities that are home to more than 100,000 residents and thousands of visitors. Beyond the unique coverage area of each station, they can work in concert to triangulate smoke columns.
“Every once in a while, I will spot some smoke coming up somewhere and there’s a little bit of excitement – a little bit of interest – while I determine the location and report all of the appropriate information on the form, use the two-way radio to contact the dispatch, and they send resources.”
Lookouts report smoke detection to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Redmond, Oregon. Suppression begins with the closest responding agency, which can be state, federal, tribal governments or local districts. This complete and coordinated response is a hallmark of Oregon’s fire suppression mission and is only possible with those agency and community partners.
As a former volunteer firefighter, Clinton knows very well the need for and advantage of spotting fires. “Fire detection is important because we need to catch fire early,” he said, “because the longer that the fire burns, the more damage it does and the harder it is to control when we eventually get there. So, if I can spot a fire five minutes before someone calls it in on 9-1-1, we may save who knows how many acres.”
That rapid detection and response is part of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s aggressive initial attack strategy. Detecting wildfires early and responding quickly minimizes damage to natural resources and property and ensures firefighter and public safety.
In recent years, agencies have begun transitioning lookout towers to smoke-detection camera stations, but even those system use trained human operators for confirmation. For now, Clinton and other Forest Lookouts get to perform this critical work with some of the best penthouse views in the state.
“I feel lucky to be up here. It’s a great job and important work,” said Clinton.