Fire spotters’ work a solitary but vital job

Fire spotters’ work a solitary but vital job

21 August 2011

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Canada — On the top of a mountain with no road sits a solitary shack.

The high-up cabin sticking out from the rocks 80 kilometres west of Calgary is the seasonal home of provincial fire spotter Chip McCullough.

Come springtime, the 67-year-old Calgarian is flown by helicopter to the Barrier Lake lookout, where he lives alone, surveying the mountains and valleys for the first sign of smoke.

The panoramic view of the Bow Corridor and Kananaskis Valley in McCullough’s backyard is an artist’s paradise, too.

“The mountains are what I love,” McCullough says, surveying the scene with his painter’s eye. “They change every five minutes.”

On an August afternoon, his long greyish hair is swept back under a flat hat, and he wears a button-down cardigan that wards off the wind carrying an autumn chill this high up.

McCullough is one of 128 fire lookout observers placed through Alberta’s forests, from the remote timberland of the north to mountaintops on the province’s southwestern edge. As they did decades ago, these forest sentinels use the most basic tools — their own eyes — to defend Alberta from forest fires.

The lookout crews are Alberta’s first responders in the fight against potentially devastating wildfires. Each one spends hours searching the wilderness horizons during the hottest months of the year for telltale puffs of smoke, to report the information back to headquarters.

They’re a curious collection of solitary souls and outdoor enthusiasts, drawn to the quiet life immortalized in the journals of Beat Generation legend Jack Kerouac.

“I like the whole idea of fire lookouts, I like the idea of living out here, rather than living in town or the city,” says McCullough, who did, indeed, first hear of the job in the 1970s through Kerouac’s writings, since “we all read Jack Kerouac in those days.”

“I have time to do my artwork. In quiet times I get to draw and sketch, paint.”

A singsong chime interrupts McCullough’s musings.

It’s an intruder alert, because although there’s no road here, a popular hike leads straight to McCullough’s front door. And despite the job’s place in fiction as an isolated outpost, some of the lookouts, including McCullough’s can receive thousands of “visitors” each year.

“That gives me a little advance warning if anyone comes up the trail,” McCullough explains.

“If you want peace and quiet, you’ve got to go further out in the mountains.”

Indeed, in one hour, easily a dozen hikers — including a group of school boys and their camp leader, and a Calgary alderman on his first day of vacation — tramp up the trail.

Signs warn strangers the destination is actually a provincial work site — and a person’s home.

The intruder alert and warning signs are some of the new security measures the province implemented after fire spotter Stephanie Stewart went missing under mysterious circumstances five years ago. Stewart’s case remains unsolved.

“I have to say, 99 per cent of people are really good, as long as they behave themselves, realize this is somebody’s home and they’re in somebody’s yard,” McCullough says, as the chime sounds again.

“It at least gives them pause.”

McCullough, who works as a framer during the winter, is marking his 32nd season as a fire spotter.

The home he affectionately calls his “shack,” is actually a 30-square-metre cabin with windows all around.

It’s both work site and living quarters, and is immaculately kept. Lining the walls are the comforts of home — a small bed, some cupboards and a sink, and on the desk are a few novels, some unfinished artwork and McCullough’s collection of wooden pipes.

At the beginning of the season, McCullough brings enough of the custom blended tobacco he gets from a Calgary shop to fill his pipe through the months ahead.

Every three weeks, a helicopter drops off fresh food, water and other supplies.

There’s no running water here. McCullough collects rainwater in a large barrel to use around the cabin. Most days, he keeps clean with a sponge bath.

“On hot days if I want to run the risk, I can go out on the deck, put some warm water in a plastic bag and hang it up on a nail, and punch holes on the bag and stand under that and have a shower,” McCullough says.

“But I always have to keep an eye on the trail. People are showing up here at all hours of the day. I’ve had people showing up here at six in the morning.”

McCullough keeps vigil with a pair of Leupold Wind River Olympic binoculars. When he spots something, he uses a telescopic site mounted on a fire finder — a table full of charts and maps in the centre of the room — to narrow the smoke disturbance to a precise location and guide the fire fighters to the site.

“People ask me, ‘What do you do here.’ I say, ‘I look out.’ The job is keeping an eye on the scenery and making sure nothing is burning down.”

It’s a job description that hasn’t changed much since the 1930s, when Alberta launched its first organized fire detection network.

The new chain of lookouts was an improvement over the old system, which included ranger patrols that would plan routes across high ground to glance around for fires.

As the new facilities were built across the province, workers used root cellars to keep perishables from spoiling and spent hours stacking firewood for heat.

Since then, refrigerators and stoves have become the norm, fuelled by solar, wind and propane power.

Many locations now have televisions and Internet connections, too.

From their lookout points in high towers and mountaintop cabins, fire spotters alert the province to about 34 per cent of Alberta’s fires.

“The forest fire lookouts form the backbone of our planned wildlife detection system,” says Tim Klein, Alberta’s provincial wildfire detection co-ordinator.

Today, Alberta’s forest fire fighting arsenal includes airplanes and helicopters, ground patrols and a river patrol.

Some fires are part of the natural life cycle of a forest, experts say, but the province must do its best to fend off dangerous infernos such as the one that consumed much of Slave Lake this summer.

Speed is crucial to attacking the destructive blazes, says Mike Flannigan, a professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta and a senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

“The initial attack, you have to hit hard, you have to hit fast to be effective,” Flannigan says.

“The sooner the fire is reported, then you can make the decision about whether to send the ground crews out, helicopters or water bombers, what your response is going to be.

“That’s the beauty of the lookout towers.”

Other provinces, including Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, employ forest fire lookouts.

In Canada, Alberta’s $6 million-a-year system is the largest of its kind.

Each fire spotter views an area of about 5,000 square kilometres, slightly less than the size of Prince Edward Island.

The province’s fire lookout positions, which pay up to $23 an hour, are coveted jobs, says Klein, but not everyone is cut out for the task.

“The whole makeup of the social aspect of being a human being is changed dramatically out there,” he says.

“You can’t go there to find yourself. You have to like yourself,” Klein says.

Depending on the weather, fire spotters may work up to five or six months of the year.

Joe Burritt arrived at his Kananaskis station on June 20 this year, a little later than usual due to the wet spring.

The breathtaking mountain post, at the top of an old forestry road overlooking the Kananaskis Lakes, is wooded with spruce and pine trees and larches, whose needles will turn gold in the fall.

The past months have been cool and rainy, so it’s been a slow season for fire starts.

August wind is drying out the land, though, and the grass is starting to cure. On this afternoon, fire hazard is high, says Burritt.

The 69-year-old fire spotter is a veteran forest ranger who has worked at the Kananaskis lookout for four seasons, and spent six years before that at Moose Mountain.

Couples are allowed to live together at the lookouts, and Burritt’s wife, Dale, a trained fire spotter herself, joins him at the tower for most of the season.

Their two-storey cabin has a homey feel, with flower pots and garden knick-knacks set up outside. Yards away, a Canadian flag marks a tiny hole in the ground, Burritt’s private mountain “golf course,” where he practices his swing on quiet evenings.

Upstairs contains an office with a wraparound observation deck, while living quarters are down below.

The amount of time fire spotters spend in the lookout towers depends on the weather, Burritt explains.

When the risks are low, morning is spent puttering around the “yard,” doing dishes, drinking coffee or “socializing with the wildlife,” Burritt says.

When hazards are high, “you’re living the look,” he says.

“It’s definitely an art and a profession. When you look at the landscape, you see green. When there’s smoke, it’s blue. A bit of a change in a green pattern, a bit of a haze will signal there is something there you’ll check,” he says.

The way he describes it, the job sounds simple enough.

But the potential threat behind every changing shadow, each swirl of rising dust, is identified, scrutinized and catalogued, mentally or on paper.

In the mountains, lightning is a major cause of fire. The days after an electrical storm are risky, too.

“The surface can be wet, but it can be smouldering underneath. As it dries out, then your fire comes out,” Burritt says.

On the other side of the Trans-Canada Highway, a lightning fire “popped up,” near Waiparous on a recent Saturday.

Terry Mildenberger, 47, in her second season staffing the nearby Mockingbird tower, was up in her cupola, watching.

“The wind shifted. I was looking around. It popped up behind this hill,” she says.

As quickly as she got the bearings, Mildenberger called in the smoke to headquarters and firefighters and water bombers rushed to the scene.

“It was pretty exciting for a while,” says Mildenberger, of the 6.3-hectare blaze.

An active smoke provides adrenalin-pumping moments up on a tower.

But the lifestyle is an overall tranquil one, Mildenberger says.

“It’s a very simple life out here.”

Other jurisdictions have abandoned the fire tower model.

By the 1970s, for example, Ontario had closed down its entire tower detection system. The province now pays around $1 million a year to operate a fleet of a dozen small aircraft to patrol at-risk areas.

In Alberta, the government has plans to refurbish its network.

The province has put out a tender to rebuild more than a third of the lookout facilities. Fifty buildings are set for construction, with a price tag of $1.9 million for each of the next five years.

Costs for materials and services have gone up substantially over the years.

The province regularly re-evaluates the time-worn process, Klein says.

“We ask it internally all the time. Is there a better way of doing business? Why do we continue this way?”

Alberta is several years into a project that looks at in-depth detection of wildfires using a camera system. Some observers have been supplied with cameras that can peek into some blind spots, such as valleys, that are essentially “folded in” to the landscape.

But consider a long weekend in May, when recreationists hit the bushes and backcountry in ATVs and campers, lighting campfires along the way.

A satellite doesn’t necessarily know what’s a legitimate blaze, and if it does, software to operate it costs far more than the current human operation, says Klein.

“The lookout observer’s mind and eye can do it in seconds.”

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