OUTDOORS: Local dispatch group relies on system of fire towers for early fire detection

OUTDOORS: Local dispatch group relies on system of fire towers for early fire detection

13 July 2008

published by www.superiortelegram.com

USA — Fire towers in northern Wisconsin often sit empty, but that’s not always so. When the threat of fire is highest, Department of Natural Resources employees strap on harnesses and climb into nearly a dozen lookouts perched 100 feet or more above the ground.

These are the fire towers still in use by the Brule area fire dispatch group. The Brule dispatch covers an area that spans four counties — Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland and Iron — and the towers are a crucial element in forest fire control.

“They are very beneficial to our program, even though they are old,” said Jay Gallagher, Brule area DNR forestry leader.

New technology has been adopted by many fire dispatches, including the Brule group, but for first detection, Gallagher said the fire towers remain a viable tool. Upkeep is required for the 11 fire towers in the Brule dispatch area; however, they are still a low-cost method for fire detection and are used to a lesser degree throughout Wisconsin.

Josh McIntyre, a natural resources educator for the Brule River State Forest who also serves as a support dispatcher for the Brule area fire dispatch group, has spent time on duty in a fire tower. He said workers typically start shifts at 10 a.m. and continue until as late at 6 p.m., depending upon the fire danger level. Training must be completed before a staff member can be assigned to work in a tower. Employees learn the proper way to identify and report a possible fire, how to use the harness system worn while climbing up and down the tower and other necessary skills.

Once in the tower, the day is spent taking daily weather observations and scanning the horizon for a wisp of smoke or other signs of fire. It may sound like a relaxing way to spend a day, yet McIntyre said when workers are in the tower, relaxation is the furthest thing from their minds.

“It’s such a serious job that it holds pretty good weight,” McIntyre said. “It’s easy to stay attentive.”

A 360-degree dial with a sight sits on a podium in the middle of each fire tower. If smoke is observed, workers use the instrument to determine the exact direction of the fire from their location. They then estimate the distance and call in a report that also includes the color of the smoke and size.

“Usually what happens is the other towers will hear that and get a cross,” McIntyre said.

Getting the direction of the smoke from another tower allows workers on the ground to pinpoint the location. Without the other tower’s input, ground crews must rely on the original estimation of distance to find the fire. McIntyre said set landmarks can help when judging distance, but it’s still easy to report a fire at seven miles when it may actually be 14 or more.

“That’s why that cross is so important,” McIntyre said.

So far, the network of towers has worked well for the Brule dispatch group. According to Gallagher, the unit plans to continue using the towers as a detection system as long as it is feasible to do so. The structures would be staffed now if the fire season that never really got started was not already finished.

“Essentially, our spring fire season would be considered over,” Gallagher said.

Wildfires continue to flare up across much of California, but that is not a worry locally. In regions with sandy soil in Douglas and Bayfield counties, Gallagher said day-to-day concerns are present because of the dry duff layer and fine fuels. The pine barrens near Solon Springs Gordon and Barnes are a particular concern, but if the area receives rain every three to four days, it should be fine.

“There is no concern of a large fire right now,” Gallagher said.

When compared with the last two years, this spring fire season was particularly mild. Gallagher said as of early July, the Brule Dispatch had dealt with 20 reported fires in its region this year compared to roughly 120 last season.

“I’d say this was a wetter than average fire season, and it resulted in many fewer fires,” Gallagher said. “Our spring fire season was very quiet.”

And the quiet fire season was not restricted to the northwestern region of the state. According to the Wisconsin DNR Web site, a total of 230 fires burned 200 acres in Wisconsin this year as of mid-May. In 2007, about 700 fires had burned 3,800 acres by that time.

Fire danger is low across the state, but both Gallagher and McIntyre warned that people must remain attentive when burning outside. A fire should never be left unattended and must be cold to the touch before it can be considered out. A permit is required to burn.

McIntyre also said a good rule of thumb is to clear all fuel at least as far away from the fire as the flames are high. For a fire with flames one foot high, he recommended keeping flammable materials one and a half or two feet away.

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