In fire fights, look­outs are the hold­outs

Ag­ing tow­ers still a key tool dur­ing fire sea­son, ex­perts say

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Keith Ri­dler As­so­ci­ated Press

BOISE, Idaho — Look­out tow­ers perched atop re­mote, craggy peaks across the West may seem like quaint re­minders of an era be­fore satel­lites, smart­phones and jet­pro­pelled air tankers.

Some of the struc­tures are more than 100 years old. But with their lofty views and good old-fash­ioned hu­man ob­ser­va­tion, fire look­outs play a cru­cial role in the na­tion’s front-line ef­forts to stop wild­fires.

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

Fire look­outs start tak­ing on more re­spon­si­bil­ity about now as wild­fire sea­son tran­si­tions from lower el­e­va­tion grass­lands to higher el­e­va­tion forests. Some tow­ers are just get­ting staffed as snow melts and they be­come ac­ces­si­ble. This week, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter, there are more than 50 large wild­fires, mostly in the West.

The For­est Ser­vice saw the need for early de­tec­tion fol­low­ing wild­fires in 1910 in Idaho and ad­ja­cent states that merged, killing 87 peo­ple and torch­ing 4,700 square miles.

The so­lu­tion was fire look­outs, with the num­ber peak­ing some­where around

5,000 in the 1940s, many con­structed 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 struc­tures. Only about 400 look­outs re­main, mostly in the West, af­ter the For­est Ser­vice, de­cid­ing air­craft could re­place them, de­stroyed many look­outs from the

1960s through 1980s rather than pay for needed re­pairs.

Us­ing air­craft to spot wild­fires, par­tic­u­larly af­ter light­ning storms, has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant part of the For­est Ser­vice’s fire­fight­ing ef­forts. But of­fi­cials have also found the re­main­ing look­outs spot the ma­jor­ity of for­est wild­fires in the ar­eas they cover, giv­ing fire­fight­ers cru­cial ex­tra time to put out wild­fires be­fore they spread.

In gen­eral, of­fi­cials say, air­craft can re­main aloft for only lim­ited pe­ri­ods and can miss the faint or in­ter­mit­tent smoke from a nascent wild­fire.

“A trained look­out can be pretty darn ac­cu­rate,” said Rene Eus­tace, fire look­out co­or­di­na­tor for part of Mon­tana’s Bit­ter­root Na­tional For­est. “They learn the coun­try. That’s one of their jobs.”

Look­out tow­ers are found mostly in na­tional forests. Idaho’s Sal­mon-Chal­lis Na­tional For­est in 2010 opted to boost its staffed look­outs from four to six and cut back on flights over the rugged area.

Those who staff the look­outs usu­ally live in the rus­tic, one-room tow­ers or in nearby cab­ins dur­ing fire sea­son. Each tower is unique, but many are out­fit­ted with a bed, a ta­ble and chairs, and an out­house. Some con­tain small kitchens and wood stoves.

“Be­ing a look­out is not a job for ev­ery­body,” said For­est Tom Van­deWater scans the for­est for pos­si­ble wild­fires July 18 from the Cool­wa­ter Fire Look­out near Low­ell, Idaho.

Ser­vice look­out Sam­sara Duf­fey, pre­par­ing to spend the next three months at about 8,000 feet at Pa­trol Moun­tain Look­out in Mon­tana’s Bob Mar­shall Wilder­ness with her dog, a blue heeler named Rye.

Look­outs make about $14 an hour for an eight-hour day and time-and-a-half for over­time. In an av­er­age fourto five-month sea­son, Eus­tace said, a fire look­out can ex­pect to work 200 to 300 hours of over­time.

Duf­fey said that like many

look­outs, she’s vig­i­lant the en­tire day as op­posed to just the eight hours she’s be­ing paid. This will be her 21st sum­mer at the tower. The at­trac­tion: “Just the idea of be­ing able to wake up on a moun­tain­top and spend the day watch­ing the clouds move and the light change,” Duf­fey, 42, said. “It’s re­ally tough to walk away from that.”

The walk into Pa­trol Moun­tain Look­out is not so easy ei­ther — a 6-mile up­hill hike, a typ­i­cal ef­fort for many fire look­outs.

That’s a sell­ing point, the For­est Ser­vice dis­cov­ered, for en­thu­si­asts who don’t mind spend­ing money to hike in and rent a fire look­out that’s no longer ac­tive and ex­pe­ri­ence what Duffy gets paid to do.

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

Nearly 75 such look­outs are avail­able for rent, the sales pitch com­bin­ing great views with a sense of his­tory. Medicine Point was built in 1940 and, like many other look­outs, is listed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

Ef­forts con­tinue, mean­while, to fig­ure out a way to once and for all make fire look­outs ob­so­lete with mod­ern and po­ten­tially cheaper ways to spot fires. One plan re­places hu­mans with re­motely op­er­ated cam­eras. “They’ve tried that, but so far it’s not per­fected,” Eus­tace said.

TED S. WAR­REN/AP

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