Spotters in towers help prevent wildfires

Spotters in towers help prevent wildfires

11 May 2009

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USA — In nine years on the job, Bonnie Dryer has left her post only once to use the bathroom.

With the nearest facilities 115 steps and 11 rungs on a ladder away, she’s careful about her liquid intake. For her six- to eight-hour shifts, Dryer stands in a 7-by-7-foot enclosed tower staring at the horizon, looking for smoke.

“Home sweet home,” Dryer said last week in the fire tower, which swayed in a stiff breeze. “Some people wonder — doesn’t it get lonely? But I like to be alone.”

Despite advances in technology, no satellite, radar or spotter plane can do Dryer’s job as well and as quickly as this mother of two adult sons can. Armed with binoculars and a radio, Dryer and the other spotters working in the state’s 86 staffed fire towers are the first line of defense duringWisconsin‘s spring wildfire season.

When a smoldering cigarette butt, unattended campfire or lightning strike sparks a blaze, it’s often the spotters who notice first. Despite the prevalence of people with cell phones, there are still enough remote areas where no one would notice a fire if it weren’t for the eyes in the sky.

“With all the advances we have and nuances in technology, (spotters in fire towers) still outperform everything we have. The human element is still very difficult to replace,” said James Barnier, Department of Natural Resources forest fire suppression specialist.

As of Friday, DNR firefighters had suppressed 744 fires that consumed 1,764 acres, and helped other fire departments fight 42 forest fires that burned up 649 acres. Last spring, which was rainier and cooler than this year, the totals were 428 fires and 230 acres for the same time period.

The five-year average for this time of year is 683 fires and 2,532 acres.

At the DNR office in Park Falls, John Kelto monitors a radio linked to fire tower workers and fire departments while keeping an eye on a computer screen showing weather information.

Once smoke is reported, Kelto plots coordinates on a giant map with large circles that look like stains left behind by beer steins. The circles are the coverage area of each fire tower in the Park Falls fire dispatch center, which includes Sawyer, Rusk, Price and Taylor counties, as well as portions of Ashland, Barron and Marathon counties.

The previous week, spotters reported smoke, and fire crews were dispatched half an hour before citizens on cell phones began calling.

“It didn’t turn out to be a big fire, but they had a half hour lead time. That’s a good example of how valuable (spotters) are,” said Kelto, pausing to talk to a ranger near Medford who was responding to a report of smoke that turned out to be a resident burning brush. “We still have a lot of areas where fires could go undetected for a long time.”

The fire spotter at the Rib River tower had called in a report of gray smoke at 219.5 degrees and 3.5 to 4 miles out. Each tower has a device called an alidade, which allows spotters to determine the compass direction and distance. Back at the fire dispatch center, one of nine in the state, Kelto uses the same compass points on his map to determine the location.

Some days it’s slow, and other days it’s like juggling sparklers. Marilyn Kitten, who held Kelto’s job as fire control dispatcher in Park Falls for several years, remembers her first day on the job. She handled 33 fires onEaster Sunday 1998.

“It was a bad introduction, but it was an interesting job,” said Kitten.

Not only do fire spotters report the location of smoke, they also note the color and behavior of the smoke. Black smoke usually means structures, vehicles or cattails are burning. Sometimes pine forests thick with resin will burn dark at first, too. White smoke means lighter fuels such as grass, small twigs and pine needles.

If the smoke is brown and dissipating quickly, that often means farmers are putting lime on fields and kicking up dirt beneath tractor wheels. If the smoke looks like it’s puffing, that often means a human — likely someone burning brush or running a syrup-making operation — is feeding the fire. And spotters can tell if the fire is spreading, in which direction, and whether the smoke is heading toward an open field or a thick grove of trees — all critical information for firefighters, said Rick Rhodes, who has fought fires for the DNR for 26 years.

Most of the fire towers were constructed during the 1930s — many by Civilian Conservation Corps workers — on hills throughout central and northern Wisconsin, a state that has a long and tragic history of destructive fires. Aside from Peshtigo’s devastating 1871 fire, which still ranks No. 1 in fire deaths in America, the city of Marshfield was almost burned to the ground in 1887, and fires in 1894 consumed 64,000 acres in Barron and Washburn counties and 100,000 acres in Price County.

Just last month, a DNR pilot was killed while helping at the scene of a wildfire in Wood County. Heath Van Handel, 36, who had worked for the DNR since 2006, was observing the blaze and relaying information to firefighters on the ground when his plane crashed.

Not all of the fire towers continue to be staffed nowadays. While 86 towers have limited-term employees this spring, that’s down from 95 staffed towers a decade ago, said Barnier. In some places it’s easy to find spotters willing to work 100 feet up on nice sunny days, but in other areas it’s difficult hiring enough people.

Dryer never knows when she’ll be working, because her $8.75-an-hour job, which includes a daily workout climbing 10 stories, is dependent on weather. When it’s raining and there’s no fire threat, she’s got the day off. When she sees green buds on the trees from her domain, she knows it won’t be long before her season will be done.

On this day she loaded her backpack with a snack of strawberries, Girl Scout cookies and baby carrots, sunglasses, pen, cell phone, extra radio battery, water bottle (which she won’t start sipping from until one or two hours before the end of her shift), a hooded sweat shirt and a weather radio. No book, though, since she’s busy looking out the windows all day.

“There are some days when you call in three or four (fires) and some days when you call in absolutely nothing,” said Dryer, who has detected 11 fires this season.

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