From atop their silent perches, fire lookouts standing guard

From atop their silent perches, fire lookouts standing guard

28 August 2012

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USA– ATOP BLUE RIDGE – On a table in the corner of the Moqui lookout tower, 83 feet above the ground and 40 miles from the nearest town, a mobile phone chirps to life with a tinny chorus from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Helen Roe picks up the phone and answers. On the other end is Shirley Payne, Roe’s friend, mentor and occupant of the Baker Butte lookout, the next tower over on the Mogollon Rim. Payne is senior to Roe in years of service and in elevation. Keep this job long enough, it turns out, and you really can climb higher.

The two women catch up, compare a few notes about a couple of smoke plumes spotted the day before, then say goodbye. For Roe, the mobile phone is the newest piece of technology she’s likely to use on the job this season.

In an era when technology is remaking seemingly every task, the platform atop a fire-lookout tower is a space mostly frozen in time. There are no satellite position signals, no laser-sighted measuring tools, no automated alerts.

For her work, Roe relies on two-way radios, binoculars and a sighting device invented in 1911.

The most important tools in Roe’s arsenal are her own eyes, trained on a vast sea of ponderosa pines, looking for the first wisps of smoke that signal a new fire. That hasn’t changed in the 100 years since the Forest Service started building fire towers and sending lookouts to the top.

Even with the advances in surveillance and detection, the human lookout remains the best early-warning system for wildland fires, nimbler and faster to react than a satellite or remote camera, better able to relay the practical information firefighters need most.

About 65 towers remain active in Arizona. Budget cuts have reduced the number in recent years, but the Forest Service says it remains committed to keeping as many open as possible. The lookouts are on the mountain daily during fire season. They know the terrain, the variations in weather and the surroundings.

A robotic camera, lookouts will tell you, couldn’t take pride in ownership, couldn’t worry about the people who live in the woods.

“It’s like when you’re home and you see a spider running across the carpet, and you see it because it doesn’t belong,” Roe says. “This is my carpet, these trees. I can see when something’s not right. I know this ridge like the back of my hand.”

A lookout’s job

If a fire lookout does his or her job well, few people will ever know. The primary objective is to spot a fire — “a smoke,” in lookout lingo — while it is still small and help fire crews extinguish it before it races across the landscape.

The only way to do that is to climb the tower and watch, hour by hour, day by day, from the time the snow melts until it returns. Helen Roe’s season begins in April or May and wraps up in September, maybe early October. Spotting only works in broad daylight: Her day starts at 8:30 a.m. and, if all goes smoothly, ends before 5 p.m.

Some lookouts live at the tower, often in small cabins at the base. Roe lives with her husband in a small community a few miles from the tower, which is about halfway between Winslow and Payson off Arizona 87. Most lookouts keep other jobs in the off-season; Roe delivers mail. In fire season, her commute includes about a mile of winding, rutted forest road that ends at the base of Moqui tower, where she makes the first of a half dozen or so treks each day up and down the 111 stairs to the top.

As lookout towers go, Moqui borders on luxurious. Built in 1953, it is 14 feet by 14 feet and includes a catwalk around the edge that, for the Western romantic, could be called a wrap-around porch. Some towers are as small as 7 by 7 feet, without the catwalk and with stairways that tend to sway.

“This one is actually very peaceful,” Roe said. “I’ve got a great office with a great view and a deluxe built-in Stairmaster.”

The view can be summed up in a word: wow. On a clear day, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff stretch across the western horizon. To the east, rolling waves of ponderosas reach toward Show Low. On a midsummer day, banks of clouds, not quite afternoon storms, drift across the sky.

Lookouts learn to see the trees in the forest and the smoke in the trees. At first, Roe said, it was difficult to part the sea of green. But over time, she became skilled at finding the smokes and pinpointing their location, sometimes to within half a mile.

First thing every morning, Roe radios the Coconino National Forest dispatch, reports Moqui “active” and dictates current weather conditions. She delivers the same information to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which border Coconino.

On one recent day, she checked the status of two smokes she had reported the day before. Neither appeared to have grown; before the day is over, crews will mop up at both. Roe is watching for “sleepers,” small fires or even just smoke plumes that seem to disappear, then flare up the next day.

And then the watch begins. This one comes with a soundtrack unlike most of any workplace, the hum-thrum of hummingbirds, who swarm outside the tower at a pair of feeders Roe maintains. The tiny birds flit around the red feeder, jockeying for position. Roe mixes water and sugar each morning — on this morning, she poured water from the tower’s rain gauge — to refill the feeders.

“I try to figure out if I’m looking at the same ones,” Roe said. “I watch how they treat each other, how they respect each other. It’s nature at its best.”

As she watches the red and gold of the hummingbirds, Roe is also keeping an eye open for the bluish smoke wisps that signal a lightning strike, the most common source of a new fire during the monsoon.

“We’re in the largest ponderosa-pine-tree forest in the country,” Roe said. “Lightning and tall trees do not get along.”

Lookouts romanticized

Somewhere in the history of fire watches, the tower and the lookout acquired an almost mythic quality, immortalized and romanticized by writers who spent a season or more climbing the stairs, looking for smokes.

Edward Abbey, the writer and activist, manned towers in northern and southern Arizona. He used the experience in several books, including “Black Sun,” the fictional story of a lookout on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Jack Kerouac wrote about his time in a tower in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. Similar experiences influenced beat poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder.

Journalist Philip Connors left a job as an editor at the Wall Street Journal to climb a tower in the remote Gila National Forest of New Mexico, a tower he returned to year after year.

“The life of a lookout is a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth,” he wrote in the 2011 book “Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout.”

Joe Bill was more curious than in search of romance when he began a tour of Arizona’s lookout towers for his book, “Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled.” A retired hospital administrator, Bill loved to hike and occasionally stumbled upon a lookout during one of his excursions into Arizona’s high country.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I started,” Bill said. “I didn’t expect it would be so diverse a group, a mix of male, female, young and old. One was in his 50th year and one in his first.”

He found a lookout who made strawberry jam in the tower, a couple who played the guitar, one who played the harp and a few writers and artists. He nearly didn’t find the Chediski tower on the Fort Apache Reservation, a secluded lookout and, at 123 feet, one of the two tallest in Arizona.

Along the way, he started working as a volunteer relief lookout, usually a weekend at a time.

“When I spend time up there, what I’ve found is that toward the end of the second day, I find I’m starting to get into it, to the pace,” Bill said. “You start thinking this could be a life-enriching experience to do for a summer.”

There are almost always people interested in climbing a tower for a season, but the ones who last are “a certain kind of person,” said Fred Hernandez, fire-management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque.

“We do have remote towers where you may not see another person up there for two weeks,” he said. “It takes a certain type of individual to embrace that kind of isolation. There’s got to be something about them.”

Humans vs. technology

In theory, technology should render the human lookout obsolete. Remote cameras, GPS units and satellites could, in theory, do the work. If the theory were carried out on flat, wide-open spaces.

“The technology today is amazing,” said Hernandez. “But a lot of these towers are in very isolated locations, and that’s the one thing that prevents us from installing a lot of high-tech stuff. In some of these places, we don’t even have power.”

The forests spread across terrain that changes abruptly, dipping into canyons that can isolate a fire crew. Weather can impede aerial surveys. Satellites can’t answer questions from dispatchers about changes in conditions.

And people in towers just know things that will help.

“These folks are a highly dedicated bunch,” Hernandez said. “They are really the local experts of that area, that particular forest.”

In the Moqui tower, Roe is on the outside catwalk on a recent afternoon when she spots what appears to be smoke, to the east, probably in the Apache-Sitgreaves forests. She grabs the binoculars and quickly confirms the spot.

In the tower, she turns on the Osborne Fire Finder’s sighting device, squinting through the rear sight until she lines up the smoke with the crosshair. She checks the outer ring to help determine the bearing and then uses the map to fix the location.

She picks up the radio mike.

“Show Low dispatch, Moqui, smoke report,” she says. If she had spotted flames, she would say “fire report.”

“I’m picking up a small, intermittent white smoke. It appears to be a little south and west of the Dutch Joe area.” She dictates other details, then signs off. Apache-Sitgreaves dispatch will let her know if the fire crews need help. Roe will check the next day on the status of the report.

Maintaining the towers can challenge the Forest Service. Supplies must be hauled to some locations by horse and mule. And the towers are not impervious to fire. In the last two years, the Forest Service’s Arizona-New Mexico region has lost five towers in wildfires, two in the 2011 Wallow Fire.

“We’re all adjusting to the budget challenges that we’re facing,” Hernandez said, “but we still recognize the value of the lookout.”

Roe’s story

Helen Roe was not looking for a job as a lookout the day in 1996 when she hiked to the Moqui tower, about three years after she and her husband moved to the mountain community where they now live. She struck up a conversation and, over time, a friendship with Shirley Payne, who had been working atop Moqui for more than a decade.

One day, Payne mentioned that the Baker Butte tower, not quite 20 miles to the southwest, had opened up and she intended to move there. Baker Butte is about 600 feet higher in elevation than Moqui and is considered a good assignment for a lookout. She said Roe ought to become her replacement.

“She told me I should go for Moqui,” Roe said. “I told her I’d go crazy, but she talked me into it, told me if I didn’t like it I could quit. And here I am.”

Roe mastered the basics. She learned to use the Osborne Fire Finder, a tool used by the Forest Service for more than 100 years. It’s a round disk, mounted on a pedestal, a type of alidade that relies on line of sight and allows a lookout to fix the location of a fire using points on a map.

Nearby is another piece of standard lookout equipment, a tall chair that sits atop glass feet, shaped like thick jelly jars. The glass insulates the chair from the metal latticework of the tower. The frame that thrusts the lookout into the sky also makes a perfect lightning rod.

In an electrical storm, she drags the chair to the center of the room and sits. “It’s very intense during a storm,” she said. “I’ve never been up here when lightning hit, but Shirley says everything turns green. When there’s lightning, I just sit in the chair and wait.”

Sometimes, Roe acts as a repeater for fire crews working in canyons. They can radio information to her and she can relay it to the command center. Occasionally, she helps direct crews to a fire. If they can see the tower, they might use a handheld mirror that allows Roe to provide exact directions. She has watched firefighting helicopters dipping below the ridge to fetch water from nearby C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

And there are visitors who find the tower just as Roe did. In a typical season, as many as 1,600 people will hike to the site. Most will climb the tower. Roe’s sign-in book shows drop-ins from Arizona, Ohio, California, Alaska and South Carolina.

Sometimes the solitude is its own reward. On a summer afternoon, clouds build slowly, erasing the peaks near Flagstaff from view. Virga, the rain that falls from clouds but never hits the ground, smears the eastern and southern sky.

“I think about the big-picture stuff sometimes,” Roe said. “Then I get busy with something else or a hummingbird flies in. The day actually goes by pretty fast.”

The radio crackles and Roe gets word that the Colley Fire, which she reported the day before, is out. A tree had been struck by lightning. (“We had quite a storm come through.”) She notes the fire’s status in her logbook.

“People will ask if satellites are going to take over,” she said.

“So far, they keep fixing up the place, so I think they’re going to keep us around. I know I want to come back next year, and I will. By fall, when it gets cold, I’m usually ready to go, but then I can’t wait to come back in the spring.”

When the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Read more at: 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles.

Read more at: the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles. “For the first time we were able to measure these warming effects minute-by-minute as the fire progressed,” said CIRES scientist Dan Lack, lead author of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also were able to record a phenomenon called the “lensing effect,” in which oils from the fire coat the soot particles and create a lens that focuses more light onto the particles. This can change the “radiative balance” in an area, sometimes leading to greater warming of the air and cooling of the surface. While scientists had previously predicted such an effect and demonstrated it in laboratory experiments, the Boulder researchers were one of the first to directly measure the effect during an actual wildfire. Lack and his colleagues found that lensing increased the warming effect of soot by 50 to 70 percent. “When the fire erupted on Labor Day, so many researchers came in to work to turn on instruments and start sampling that we practically had traffic jams on the road into the lab,” Lack said. “I think we all realized that although this was an unfortunate event, it might be the best opportunity to collect some unique data. It turned out to be the best dataset, perfectly suited to the new instrument we had developed.” The instrument called a spectrophotometer can capture exquisite detail about all particles in the air, including characteristics that might affect the smoke particles’ tendency to absorb sunlight and warm their surroundings. While researchers know that overall, wildfire smoke can cause this lensing effect, the details have been difficult to quantify, in part because of sparse observations of particles from real-world fires. Once the researchers began studying the data they collected during the fire, it became obvious that the soot from the wildfire was different in several key ways from soot produced by other sources—diesel engines, for example. “When vegetation burns, it is not as efficient as a diesel engine, and that means some of the burning vegetation ends up as oils,” Lack said. In the smoke plume, the oils coated the soot particles and that microscopic sheen acted like a magnifying glass, focusing more light onto the soot particles and magnifying the warming of the surrounding air. The researchers also discovered that the oils coating the soot were brown, and that dark coloration allowed further absorption of light, and therefore further warming the atmosphere around the smoke plume. The additional warming effects mean greater heating of the atmosphere enveloped in dark smoke from a wildfire, and understanding that heating effect is important for understanding climate change, Lack said. The extra heating also can affect cloud formation, air turbulence, winds and even rainfall. The discovery was made possible by state-of-the-art instruments developed by CIRES, NOAA and other scientists, Lack said. The instruments can capture fine-scale details about particles sent airborne by the fire, including their composition, shape, size, color and ability to absorb and reflect sunlight of various wavelengths. “With such well-directed measurements, we can look at the warming effects of soot, the magnifying coating and the brown oils and see a much clearer, yet still smoky picture of the effect of forest fires on climate,” Lack said. CIRES is a cooperative institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.

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