Fire watchers are a dying breed

Fire watchers are a dying breed

3 May 2006

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For eight hours a day, each of the last seven days, Patrick Aita has sat in roughly the samespot.

To your average desk jockey, this may not sound all that impressive, but consider that Aita’s “office” is more than 1,100 feet above sea level — and 60 feet above the ground.

The 75-year-old from Hughestown is the practitioner of an unusual and rare profession. He is a fire tower lookout, the eye in the sky watching over a huge tract of remote land from his small perch of about 25 square feet on top of a steel tower.

From this mountain crow’s nest less than 100 yards off Route 115 south of Bear Creek Village, Aita can spot smoke curling out of the Lehigh River Valley in lower Luzerne County on one side and almost to the New Jersey border on the other. He is a seasonal employee of the state’s Bureau of Forestry, a division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which is currently on high alert for the peak season of forest fires in Pennsylvania.

Aita occupies one of four active fire towers in the Bureau of Forestry’s 11th District, which is comprised of Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wyoming, Wayne and Susquehanna counties. And for most of the day, his job, essentially, is to do nothing. Nothing but watch patiently for smoke puffing out of the terrain surrounding him.

“You know how I got good experience for this? Deer hunting,” he said. “Except instead of looking for deer, you’re looking for smoke.”

For some, Aita acknowledges, this job would be simply maddening. That’s why the Bureau of Forestry tends to hire older people for lookout positions

“For me, it’s peace and quiet; nobody bothers you,” he said. “It’s nice up here.”

Getting “here” is half the challenge for Aita following the open-heart surgery he underwent last year. He climbs about 100 narrow steps each day. When he reaches the top, he opens a trap door leading to a windowed steel box that sways in an unnerving way when a stiff wind blows.

When smoke appears on the horizon, Aita springs into action.

To estimate the location of the potential blaze, tower lookouts use a crude device called an azimuth, essentially a homemade mix of navigational tools. A metal bar spins on a fixed axis like a giant compass. When he sees smoke, Aita peers down the length of the bar, lining it up with the smoke like he’s using the cross hairs on a rifle sight.

The bar is superimposed over a map of the area, and once Aita establishes the direction from which the smoke originates, he estimates the distance. And then? Well, he does what he does the rest of the day. He waits.

He waits to see if the smoke dissipates. Or to see if it gets thicker or blacker. If that happens, he calls Bureau of Forestry patrols on the ground.

Aita said in his 20 years, he’s located and reported more forest fires than he can possibly remember. But most of the smoke he spots isn’t worthy of alarm. In fact, towers reported only four forest fires in the area last spring, according to Assistant District Forester Nicholas Lylo, which would explain why tower lookouts are a dying breed. Almost half of the forest fires in District 11 last year were reported by civilians using cell phones. The four active tours in the district overlook the most remote areas.

So Aita often has to find ways to occupy his time in between frequently scanning the countryside. His small, portable television is placed on an old wooden plank and angled toward a well-worn swivel chair. The tower man perches himself here, resting his feet on a milk crate that sat next to a hunting magazine he was reading. During his shift, he leaves this spot only to go to the bathroom. It’s no wonder it’s taken some time for the district to replace an experienced lookout who died this year.

“It takes a certain kind of individual to be a fire tower,” said Forest Fire Specialist Supervisor Jack Zborovian, as Aita gazed out the window at the mountains and valleys below, occasionally shaking his head in agreement. “They have to be content being by themselves and enjoying Pennsylvania’s forests.”


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