Eyes in the sky: How N.J.’s remaining fire towers spot blazes first

Eyes in the sky: How N.J.’s remaining fire towers spot blazes first

02 July 2012

published by www.nj.com

USA -The description for Eric Weber’s job has not changed in more than a century.

Charged with keeping watch over thousands of acres of land stretching nearly a hundred miles in every direction, Weber scans the horizon for smoke from his perch in the sky.

For decades, state and federal foresters have been phasing out lookout towers like his, relying instead on aircraft, satellites and 911 callers to find wildfires. At one time, there were nearly 9,000 fire towers nationwide. Now a little more than 800 are active, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a national network dedicated to preserving the towers.

In New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, 21 towers, dotted throughout the state, remain the first line of defense against wildfires. In fact, 25 percent of the blazes here every year are first spotted by a lookout, according to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection.

“You can see just about the whole state from the air with those 21 towers,” said Bob Wolff, section warden for the fire service and co-director of the state chapter of the lookout association.

Staffed when fire danger is moderate or higher, the towers in the northern half of the state, in places like Denville and Mount Olive and Frankford, are active roughly four months out of the year.

New Jersey’s network of watch towers is strategically spaced, focusing on wilderness areas like the Highlands and the Pine Barrens. Along the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, roughly 1,500 feet above the Delaware River, Weber keeps watch in the Catfish Station tower on the hot, dry days when the risk for fire is high.

On clear days, he can scan the Catskills to the north and peer down into South Jersey, maintaining contact with nearby towers by phone and dispatching fire crews by radio from his 7-foot-by-7-foot box, 47 feet above the ground.

“I look at the same thing every day,” Weber said. “If something changes, I know it pretty quick, because not much changes.”

He can tell the difference between a wildfire and someone burning a log in a fireplace.

“I call them ‘pencil smokes.’ They come up really skinny, thin and white in color.” Weber said. “They don’t ever change and then eventually they dissipate. If it comes up a pencil, and it starts building and building, then something else is going on out there.”

“That’s when we send somebody.”

In his first season as a lookout, Weber, 26, has been a wildland firefighter and is also a volunteer fire chief in Knowlton Township. On a typical shift, he spends about eight hours in the small metal cab atop a red and white tower. By necessity, it is neat and tidy. Everything has its place – a hot plate is in one corner, a pan hangs from a hook on the wall and emergency rations are kept under a desk along with an American flag.

The room is dominated by a large metal disc mounted on a pole in the middle of the room. The alidade is one of the most important tools a fire lookout has, aside from keen eyesight aided by a pair of binoculars. It’s similar in concept to the devices used to navigate at sea and survey roads. It’s ancient too; Arabs are believed to have used similar devices in the 12th Century.

Weber uses this to determine what direction the smoke is in relation to his tower. He coordinates with neighboring towers to triangulate the location of a fire to within a quarter-mile.

“Hopefully, when a smoke comes up, at least one other tower can see it. It makes our job a lot easier,” Weber said. “If another tower can’t see it, then we use the lay of the land — count the ridges out or local landmarks — whatever resources we can to home in on where the fire is located.”

Lookouts also act as dispatchers for fire crews, a task that Wolff said is more effective than using modern technology. More than two decades ago, for four years Wolff sat in the same tower that Weber does today. Now, the section warden fights the blazes that Weber spots.

Seven or eight years ago, before Weber’s time in the tower, Bob Yanvary was at work 30 miles from home when dry lightning sparked a blaze near his house in Hardwick. The lookout on duty that day at Catfish Station saw the smoke from roughly three miles away.

“He’s the one that spotted that fire. He was the one that notified the local fire department,” said Yanvary, a builder who restores homes. “Who knows what would have happened, because they were able to respond quickly. I thank God for that guy up there. He was paying attention that day.”

Weber said he has called in a dozen fires in one day. Other days are quieter and he can read, do homework or watch the red-tail hawks and occasional bald eagle ride the thermal updrafts within feet of his windows.

The solitude of a fire tower is occasionally interrupted by visitors – both hikers and tourists. Lookouts welcome the chance to invite them in, give a brief tour and have them sign the logbook. It’s an opportunity to educate the public about fire dangers and safety in the wilderness.

“When people come up there, they are scanning thousands of acres of woods on top of the Kittatinny Ridge,” Wolff said. “They don’t see an interstate. They don’t see a refinery. They don’t see the bad things that New Jersey is known for.

“All they see is beautiful storms, the green forest and just the beauty of what North Jersey is,” he said. “It’s wonderful. Every day you go up there, the view is different. It’s the same tower, it’s the same terrain, but the view is different.”

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