Fire lookout span eras, remain crucial in spotting forest fires

BOISE, Idaho – Fire-lookout towers perched atop distance, craggy peaks in the U.S. the West may seem to be fun memories of an era before satellites, cell phones and jet-powered air tankers.

Indeed, some of the structures are over 100 years old. But with their elevated views and good old-fashioned human observation, fire lookouts play a crucial role in the land-line efforts to stop forest fires.

“The biggest piece of this puzzle is to keep fires small,” said Kassidy Kern, a U. S. Forest Service spokeswoman based in Oregon, the Deschutes National Forest. “And the way to do that is to have someone who is vigilant and scan.”

Fire views start taking on more responsibility now as a wildfire season, the transition from lower-lying grasslands to the higher forest. Some towers are just to the manned when the snow melts and they can be accessible. This week, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are more than 50 large wildfires, especially in the West, which consumes about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers).

The Forest Service saw the need for early detection following forest fires in 1910 in Idaho and adjacent states that were merged, killing 87 people and arson of 4,700 square miles (12,100 square kilometers).

The solution was to fire lookouts, with the number of a peak somewhere around 5,000 in the 1940s, many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program that paid young unemployed men during the Great Depression to plant trees, develop parks and build roads and other structures. Only about 400 lookout, especially in the West, after the Forest Service decided planes could be replaced and destroyed many vantage points, from the 1960s to 1980, rather than paying for the necessary repairs.

Using airplanes to spot forest fires, especially after a storm, has become an important part of the Forest Service for firefighting efforts. But the officials also have the remaining places at the site of the majority of the forest fires in the areas to which they relate, giving firefighters crucial extra time to get them out before they spread.

In general, officials say, the plane remains in the air for only a limited period of time and can miss the weak or interrupted smoke of a starting flu. A fire can zoom in on an area and spend more time on the observe of getting a better understanding of what could happen.

“A trained search can be pretty darn accurate,” said Rene Eustace, fire, search co-ordinator for a part of Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. “They learn the country. That is one of their tasks.”

Fire lookout towers are mostly found in national forests, which autonomously about the use of it. Idaho Salmon-Challis National Forest in 2010 for the promotion of the manned places from four to six, and cutting back on flights over the rugged area.

Those who staff the lookout usually stay in the rustic, one-room-towers or in the nearby cabins during the fire season. Each tower is unique, but many are equipped with a wooden bed frame, a table and chairs and an outhouse. Some contain a small kitchen and wood stoves.

“A lookout is not a job for everyone,” said the Forest Service lookout Samsara Duffey, preparing to spend the next three months at about 8000 feet (2400 metres) on Patrol Mountain Lookout in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness with her dog, a blue heeler called Rye. “But it is a good job for a lot of people that have patience and the ability to be alone.”

Vistas make about $14 an hour for an eight-hour workday and time-and-a-half for overtime. In an average of four to five months of the season, Eustace said, a busy fire find can expect to work around the 200 to 300 hours of overtime.

Duffey said that as many views, they remain vigilant throughout the day in contrast to the eight hours that they are paid. This will be her 21st summer at the tower. The attraction: “the idea of being able to wake up on a mountaintop and spend the day watching the clouds move and the light change,” said Duffey, 42. “It is really very difficult to walk away from that.”

The walk in the Patrol Mountain Lookout is not so simple — a 6-mile (10 km) uphill hike, a typical effort for a lot of fire lookouts.

That is a selling point, the Forest Service has discovered, for backcountry enthusiasts who don’t mind spending money to walk in and rent a fire lookout that is no longer active, and experienced what She gets paid to do.

Medicine Point Lookout in the Bitterroot National Forest is where Eustace began his firefighting career in 1976. “It was essentially saved from destruction, because the Forest Service decided to restore it and in the rental program,” he said.

Nearly 75 such places are available for rent, the sales pitch combines stunning views with a sense of history.

Medicine Point was built in 1940 and, like many other vantage points, is included in the National Register of Historic Places. Some active fire lookout are also on the list.

Efforts continue, meanwhile, to figure out a way to once and for all fire lookouts have been superseded by the modern and possibly cheaper ways to spot burn. A plan to replace the human with a remote-controlled cameras.

“They have tried, but so far it has not been perfected,” Eustace said. “It is still, in my opinion and the opinion of a lot of people in the Forest Service, better to have a person on a mountain peak that can give you a description.”

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