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Wildfire Watching: Rangers In Towers Are Out; Cameras Are In

RENO, Nev. (AP) — For decades, forest rangers in wooden towers across the West scanned the horizon with binoculars for smoke that could signal the start of a wildfire.

Now, scientists in Nevada and California are helping federal land managers develop technology to expand a network of high-definition cameras to do the job, including one in northern Nevada that recently captured a blaze in real-time more than 100 miles away in Oregon.

The latest project led by the Nevada Seismology Laboratory began two years ago at Lake Tahoe in conjunction with the Forest Service and other local agencies. In recent weeks, the Bureau of Land Management has mounted four cameras on remote mountain peaks stretching from central to northeast Nevada about 100 miles from the Utah line.

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"With the system we have developed here in Nevada and eastern California, I think we are on the cusp of a new era in the way we fight fires," said Graham Kent, director of the lab at the University of Nevada, Reno which tied the communication network into the system it uses to monitor seismic activity and climactic conditions.

The goal is to detect fires faster, especially in unpopulated areas where they can burn several hours or even days before anyone reports them. The cameras with pan-tilt-zoom capability provide a 360-panoramic view with infrared night vision and specialized software to track smoke.