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First line of wildfire defense: hilltop spotters

Even in this high-tech age, lookouts remain crucial to spotting fire threats on peaks across the West.

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Perched on a hilltop in the steeply-canyoned Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, Ken Struck's summer place is a contradiction.

Surrounded by microwave towers beaming TV programs and cellphone conversations at high speed, it's a low-tech outfit with no running water and an outhouse. Security is an old .357-Magnum revolver in a leather holster hanging on the wall, and entertainment is feeding the chickadees and hummingbirds that whirl around the 200 square-foot cabin.

But this is no vacation hideaway designed for someone to read (or write) the Great American Novel free from the pressures of work and family. It's one of hundreds of fire lookout stations where men and women with a sense of duty and adventure scan the landscape for the first signs of fire.

In a summer of major blazes that have incinerated nearly 4 million acres of forest and grassland, Mr. Struck and his fire-lookout colleagues across the West represent the first line of defense against wildfires. If this were war, they would be the special-ops guys dropped behind enemy lines to gather intelligence. And in an age of fire-spotting satellites and computer-operated radar systems that record lightening bolts, they're showing that one of the most important aspects of firefighting still comes down to someone with a pair of binoculars, a compass, and a map radioing in lightening strikes and sniffing for smoke.

No hilltop Hilton

About 60 miles north of Soda Mountain, Laura Glasscock is manning the White Point lookout in the Rogue River National Forest for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Her post is 5,050 feet up in the Cascade Mountains where she's working 10 days on and four days off from June through October.

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