Among hungry critters, curious tourists and fires, fire lookouts keep busy

Among hungry critters, curious tourists and fires, fire lookouts keep busy

07 December 2013

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USA — A long summer day in August offers no relief from the heat. No breeze disturbs the air, no tree can offer a refuge from the heat, and the sun’s relentless attack on the ground sends people for cover under the air conditioning units. Roads empty and going outside is a punishment.

Way above the trees, above the landscape and the neighboring peaks, Forest Service fire lookout Vickie Lamoureux scans the surreal Weaverville roads that came to a standstill.

Just as she was about to turn, a wispy plume that can hardly be discerned from the rest of the heat wave catches her eye.

“What do we have here?” she says, grabbing the binoculars. The smoke grows on the edge of a field, and fire makes its way toward the barn and the house. The elderly couple inside is huddled next to the buzzing air conditioner. They hear nothing.

Vickie picks up the radio microphone, “Redding-Weaver Bally, fire traffic,” she reports. At that, fire crews stop what they’re doing and respond. Fire engines arrive, preventing the blaze from racing across the field. A firefighter knocks on the door. The couple is astounded. They had no clue that they were about to lose their livelihood, animals and perhaps their house.

“That’s what makes being here all alone in a remote tower worthwhile,” Vickie says. “Over and over, we’re the first to see the fire before it turns into something worse. The Forest Service supports keeping lookouts around because they are very reliable.

The First to See

In an era when technology is taking over almost every task, the Weaver Bally fire lookout tower is almost frozen in time. There are no satellite position signals, no laser-sighted measuring tools and no automated alerts.

Vickie relies on a two-way radio, binoculars and a Fire Finder, a sighting tool invented more than 100 years ago and now sits atop a circular map. “It may be old technology, but it’s extremely accurate and no batteries required,” Vickie defends the low-tech instrument.

The most important tools in Vickie’s arsenal are her own eyes, trained on a vast sea of pines, looking for the first strand of smoke that signals a new fire.

When Vickie sees a smoke, she grabs the binoculars quickly, confirms the spot, squints through Fire Finder, and lining it with the smoke, she fixes the location on the circular map. She then reports to dispatch the exact location.

Last year, from her vantage point on the 6,988-foot peak near Weaverville, Vickie and her peer, Lynn McClellen, kept nine fires from racing across the landscape.

“Lynn works the Bonanza King Lookout tower north of me.”

Vickie recalls a truck filled with hay catching on fire about to consume a portion of the forest.

“The truck was about 6 miles from here,” she says. “The driver parked along the side of the road and the fire spread into the vegetation with spot fires. By detecting it early, conveying the exact location and with the quick response of the fire crews, the fires didn’t make it to the headline. That’s how we like it.”

If a fire lookout does his or her job well, few people will ever know.

From spring to winter, fire season in Northern California brings ominous uncertainty. From spring to winter, Vickie watches the forest hour by hour, day by day, scanning the vast landscape of mountains, valleys and trees through the binoculars every 15 minutes.

“We look for movement. It’s like when you’re at home and you notice something moving across the carpet, and you see it because it doesn’t belong there,” Vickie says. “This is my carpet and I can see when something that doesn’t belong there moves.”

Once considered the most important tool for the detection of wildfires, lookouts in many places faded into obscurity.

“There are 10 towers that are staffed on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest: seven on the west side and three on the east side,” Vickie says. “We cover Shasta, Siskiyou and sometimes Lassen counties. So, we are too busy to be lonely.”

Life on the Wild Side

“Living in isolation in a tower that’s perched 30 feet above the ground and 9 long miles up a very steep road is not as dull as it may seem. Life is busy and has its perks and its quirks,” Vickie says as we climb up the metal steps.

The presence of a human being in such a remote place seems to inspire the wildlife to “celebrate” in ways they would not have had a chance to do if Vickie wasn’t there. Porcupines, who are fond of salt, find it much easier to obtain it in man-made rubber so they chewed up the tires on Vickie’s truck. When the tires were gone, they munched on the transmission line, and finished the meal with the brake lines.

Squirrels find the tail pipe to be a great hiding place that they shoved as many pine cones as possible into it. Naturally, bears prefer human food more than bear food, and a family of rattlers found solace under the outhouse.

“That wasn’t cool at all,” Vickie says. “You can’t just hop in the truck and go downhill. You have to check the truck thoroughly.”

Wildlife is not all that visits the tower.

“During an electrical storm we get these weird balls of blue fire that dance about the lookout station,” Vickie says. “This phenomenon is called St. Elmo’s fire and is caused by harmless static electricity.”

Although the balls are harmless, lightning is not. The lookout is sitting at the point of impact. During a lightning storm, it is not only spectacular but can be haunting. To fully appreciate the stimulating effect, you must recall the last time that you saw a great ragged bolt of lightning split the sky and then counted — “one thousand one, one thousand two…” until the sound of thunder finally arrived.

In a lookout tower struck by lightning, the thunder and flash are simultaneous, creating an effect presumably like that inside of an exploding bomb.

“For that reason, the towers are equipped with a mass of copper wires that it is almost impossible to be electrocuted. There are copper wires that come from each corner and converge on top of the roof,” Vickie points out. “Even my bed has a copper lightning ground system.”

“So between the work, the animals, the lightning and the 600 visitors that come up here every year, it’s never lonely or boring. There’s quite a bit to do,” Vickie says.

Laced with heroics and dedication

The forest spreads across terrain that changes abruptly, dipping into canyons that can isolate fire crews. Weather can impede aerial surveys. Satellites can’t answer questions from dispatchers about changes in conditions. But people in towers can.

“I came to be a lookout for only one summer when I was in college, and 33 years later, I’m still here, enjoying the work.”

First thing every morning, Vickie joins in the roll call and radio checks. She reports the current weather and communicates information to fire departments.

And then the watch begins.

Vickie regularly relays messages from and to dispatch, the Wilderness Patrol on the trails within Trinity Alps Wilderness, and Trinity County Fire Department. She occasionally speaks with air attack and air tanker pilots, helicopter pilots and smokejumper crews.

From the days of the old west through World War II and to our current high-tech world, the lookout story is laced with heroics and dedication. There have been towers on this peak since 1915 but the road that zigzags up to the tower was built in the 1953.

“For 38 years, the men and women working this lookout traveled by foot or by mule, taking six hours to get up here,” Vickie says.

As far as lookout towers go, Weaver Bally borders on luxurious. While some towers are as small as 7 by 7 feet with stairways that tend to sway, Vickie’s 14 feet by 14 feet tower has a sturdy staircase and includes, around the edge, a catwalk that provides an exquisite panoramic view.

Inside, a couple of stools sit near glass insulators. “When there’s a storm I put these on the bottom of the chair on each leg before I sit down; the glass insulates the chair from being struck by lightning.”

The tower has hot water and ice cubes, a comfortable bed, a heater, a counter top with a sink, a refrigerator and a stove. “Except for the refrigerator and stove that run on propane, everything runs on solar power,” Vickie says. “That includes the water pump, radios and weather station. If it’s not sunny, we’re limited to what’s stored in the battery, so we need to conserve.”

Maintaining the towers can be a challenge. Supplies must be hauled in by Vickie or a fire truck. “The fire truck fills the water tank every six weeks, so you can imagine, we don’t get a shower every day.”

Even though technology is prevalent, the human lookout remains the best early-warning system for wildland fires. “We are faster to react than a satellite or remote camera, better able to relay the practical information firefighters need most and we can distinguish between someone just burning leaves and a real wildfire. Also, a robotic camera couldn’t worry about the people who live in the woods, but we do,” Vickie says.

“No one usually thinks of us here until our voices are head over the Forest Service radio,” Vickie says. “Still, working a fire lookout is the best job in the world, and I want to work as many lookouts as I can before my retinas blow out.”

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