Opinion: Staffed lookout towers are an effective tool for firefighters

fire lookout tower Pennsylvania
The new 40-foot fire lookout tower at Big Pocono State Park in Monroe County, Pennsylvania is one of 16 that are replacing old towers. Penn. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources photo.

By Michael Guerin

Even in our technologically advanced age, most reports of fires are called in by observant folks, often using cellphones. The ubiquity of these devices means an increased ability to detect wildfire more quickly. But a fair portion of California still has poor or no cellular coverage. Utilities that shut down power as a wildfire-prevention measure in fire-danger zones also render cellphones in many areas unusable as cell towers lose power.

And as crowded as California can seem, large areas of the state are relatively unpopulated, not dense with residents or hikers who might quickly report a fire. Yet a key firefighting tool that existed in the pre-cellphone era is missing — watchers who were paid to scan the horizon for fires.

At one point, there were more than 9,000 lookout towers in the United States, placed atop hills and mountains where individuals — also referred to as lookouts — worked alone each summer to watch for and report fires. They were adept at recognizing a tiny puff of color against the backdrop of trees, hills or brush for what it can be — the start of what may be the next big fire. An estimated 500 are still staffed across the nation.

California once had about 600 such towers, under federal, state and local control, scattered around forest and wildland ridges and high points, placed specifically for the broad field of view each site afforded. In the Angeles National Forest and surrounding county wildland areas, 24 lookouts watched for our safety.

The state alone employed watchers in as many as 77 towers at one time. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection now operates 38 towers, and they are only staffed by employees on occasion. None of these is in Southern California.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a growing belief that air pollution had decreased visibility at some sites, and the creep of suburbia and population into the hills and valleys made these watchers seem less necessary. Then there were the cost savings, however modest.

To help address California’s 2003 budget shortfall, the agency that became CAL FIRE offered up the remaining state lookout staffing for a whopping saving of $750,000. By then most towers in the southern national forests and those operated locally by counties or CAL FIRE were gone, repurposed or used as museum pieces.

Today, the U.S. Forest Service mainly hires lookouts for towers in its far northern forests.

Enter the volunteers, including me. Each summer day we staff 11 towers in the Angeles, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests. Volunteers also watch from at least 16 Forest Service and CAL FIRE towers in Central and Northern California.

We spend thousands of hours each fire season watching over the wildland — and the wildland-urban interface in which many of us live. We constantly scan the landscape with binoculars, watchful humans in constant touch with the dispatcher who can immediately send in the firefighting cavalry. As I scan for “smokes” I often gaze at the peaks that used to have staffed towers, and calculate how much more land we watchers could help protect.

Given our increasingly devastating fire seasons in California, the state should consider reintroducing a wider system of lookout towers, staffed by both paid personnel and volunteers. While budgets may be stretched, staffing an existing tower is not prohibitively expensive.

U.S. Forest Service seasonal lookouts make about $16,000 per summer. By comparison, the valuable Boeing 747 Air Tanker often seen dropping water and fire-retardant substances on California’s devastating fires costs $16,500 an hour to operate.

Many states have ended their lookout programs, but Pennsylvania decided to refurbish its lookout towers and invest in new ones. The state recently built 16 new towers for $6 million, each to be staffed during periods of high danger.

Other detection technologies such as satellite and automated camera systems that might sense a smoke plume could be vital in detecting these seemingly endless fires. But the technology is not infallible.

For instance, the fire-detection camera that may have been closest to the origin of last year’s deadly and destructive Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County might have been able to provide an early alert, but its alarm had been turned off as a result of many false alarms, according to news reports.

Few first reports of fires come from cameras, a CAL FIRE spokesman said. They are most often used to monitor fires already reported. Volunteers from the Forest Fire Lookout Assn. are working with researchers to refine these capabilities, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $1.6 million for a prototype system for satellite-based detection.

Lookouts and their towers should not be regarded as a sentimental anachronism. They are a critical tool awaiting California’s renewed investment — and might help reduce the state’s fire-suppression costs, which reached $635 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Automation may get to a point where it can more easily detect small fires, but it is not there yet. We still need to rely on old-fashioned human lookouts who are trained to “catch them small.”


Michael Guerin had a 38-year career in public safety and emergency management. While never a firefighter, he worked for the California Office of Emergency Services for 15 years, advancing to the post of Assistant Director for Emergency Operations, Plans and Training. For the past several years he has been a volunteer fire Lookout with the San Bernardino National Forest, helping staff the Red Mountain tower in Riverside County.

The article is used here with Mr. Guerin’s permission. It first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

H. R. 3781 if passed will increase fire suppression contractor costs

Large commercial vehicles supporting wildfire suppression could see a significant increase in insurance premiums

(Above: Firefighters line up at the catering contractor’s truck for breakfast at the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado July 1, 2012. USFS photo by Kari Greer.)

By Bob Stanton

If H.R. 3781 passes, it will increase the required minimum insurance coverage required for commercial motor vehicles (CMV) over 26,001 lbs GVWR from the current $750,000 to nearly $5 million. The bill titled Improving National Safety by Updating the Required Amount Insurance Needed per Event ( INSURANCE) Act of 2019, would apply to CMVs used in interstate commerce and index the new $5 million minimum requirement to inflation.

The bill was introduced and is sponsored by representatives with close ties to the Trucking Litigation Group within the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers lobbying group. The bill is viewed as only benefiting trial lawyers. From a 2013 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study of financial responsibility requirements for commercial motor vehicles, less than 1% of CMV accidents settle for more than the current $750,000 requirement.

Currently liability coverage for larger commercial vehicles is at times hard to place and costs have been rising, in part due to “nuclear” multimillion dollar verdicts against trucking companies in tragic accidents. Exact estimates of how much premiums for CMV insurance would rise if the $5 million minimum coverage limit is imposed vary; 300-400 % premium increases is not an unrealistic estimate.

Many contract suppression resources operate CMVs that would be subject to this new costly insurance requirement. Many engines, water tenders, dozer low boys, mobile shower, catering, aviation fueling, mobile retardant bases, and air resource support vehicles are CMVs subject to FMCSA requirements.

Both direct suppression resources and support-contracted resources are an integral part of cost effective wildland and prescribed fire management programs by many agencies.

If you have concerns, contact the office of your member of Congress.

Bob Stanton is a retired prescribed fire and engine contractor from Illinois who now works in the trucking industry.

Controversy over sending U.S. crews to Canada

A guest post by:

Frank Carroll

A firestorm of a different sort erupted over the weekend when the Canadians asked for help from US Forest Service Hotshot crews. Of course, the Canadians are our 51st state for all intents and purposes and so we will help them any way we can. It’s kind of like Israel; they call and we go and vice versa.

In this case, there is a problem. It turns out the Canadians have rules about who can enter their country and among those who can’t are anyone with a previous Driving While Intoxicated conviction. That’s a problem for most Hotshot crews.

Just like the Marine Corps, our firefighters are rough and tough, no shrinking violets. They are adventurous souls and not afraid of challenges. They learn the hard way and the lessons stick. Many fire crews have more than one crew member with a DWI conviction in the dim past. Canada has made it known that those crew members are not welcome.

Well, that’s a big problem for our organized crews. Unlike individual firefighters with no loyalty to a cohesive group of people who train, eat, sleep, and work together, Hotshots build and maintain crew cohesion and crew integrity by being a team with a capital “T.” Nobody messes with crew cohesion and no crew leader would allow that to happen. The good of the whole crew comes before the good of any single crew member.

Unless we’re taking about an assignment to Canada. It’s something that happens once in a lifetime, if at all, and it’s a big deal. Many Americans never get to travel outside the country. Fewer still get a chance to go somewhere as professionals and practice their trade with their counterparts. So, it’s exciting to go to Canada to fight fire. It’s rewarding, personally and professionally, and there’s money in it for our people and savings for the firefighting budget. Canada pays our regular wages and overtime and so on, and our local units don’t have to pay a dime: It’s a win-win.

One large contingent of Hotshot crews in the West has pushed back on the Administratively Determined (AD) Operations Officer at Boise, home of the National Interagency Fire Center and the person who decides who goes. “Our crews didn’t go (two years ago) if they couldn’t take the whole crew, especially if they had leadership that couldn’t go. I think it’s dumb, they either want our help or they don’t,” said one senior official.

Sure, we can find some fill-ins to bring the crew up to strength, but we can’t find anyone to replace the crew cohesion, crew integrity, and crew leadership that will be missing if that crew accepts the assignment without some of their best people. And we can’t repair the damage to crew morale.

One crew has simply decided not to accept Canadian assignments. It’s either all of them or none of them. For the Wyoming Hotshots, crew cohesion and the morale of every member is critically important to crew function. Other crews are sending pieces of their crews, leaving good people behind and filling in with people with untested qualifications, and who are unknown to the rest of the crew.

The Canadians have a process to waive the rule and allow our people to come as the integrated professionals they are. Forest Service leadership should sit down with the Canadians and require them to waive the DWI rule for Hotshot crews. Let’s get that fixed so we help with all hands.


During Frank Carrol’s 31-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, he served as a hotshot squad boss, assistant fire management officer, strategic planner, public affairs officer, and command staff officer on national fire teams. Currently he is a Managing Partner at
Professional Forest Management, LLC.

Helping others is one way Amanda Marsh deals with the loss of her firefighter husband

Eric Marsh was the Crew Superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; he and 18 other members of the crew were entrapped and killed on an Arizona wildfire in 2013.

Four years ago her best friend and husband was killed on a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona along with 18 other firefighters ranging in age from 21 to 36. In the years since June 30, 2013 she has experienced what every spouse dreads or does not want to think about — losing your partner in life. Below, Amanda Marsh reveals what she went through and what she found on the other side, including a way to help others who find themselves in a similar dark place.

Bill Gabbert

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By Amanda Marsh

Adaptation has become the word that best describes my life post Yarnell Hill Fire.  I woke the morning of June 30th, 2013 with a mind to do my regular Sunday chores.  Feed horses and dogs, clean up the house and work a little with a client’s horse in the afternoon.  When I lay my head down that night in my best friend’s bed, my life had been completely shattered.  Every time I tried to close my eyes all I could see were 19 bodies on the hill and one of them belonged to my husband.  The body I knew so well.  My best friend’s Saint Bernard kept putting his huge nose in my face until I finally got out of bed and walked onto the back porch.

Amanda and Eric Marsh
Amanda and Eric. Photo supplied by Amanda Marsh.

My parents were trying to get to Prescott from southern California but had been rerouted all the way through Phoenix because of the fire.  I sat on the porch and started calling every number in my phone, but everyone was asleep.  It was midnight and their lives weren’t shattered like mine.  Their husband’s body wasn’t lying on Yarnell Hill with the life ravaged out of it.

I sat with my knees pulled up to my chin and I cried and I cried and I cried.  Was this possibly real?  Was I having a very bad dream I would wake from soon?  I looked out over the darkness of Prescott and I wondered how in the world I would ever get through losing so many amazing souls.  How could Jesse be gone and Clay?  How could Travy and Turby be dead?  These were the men who fueled many of Eric’s stories about his fire life.  These were the men I knew would be there in a heartbeat if they could, how could they be gone?  I was 38 years old, and in the blink of an eye, the change of the wind, I had become the eldest widow of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Eric Marsh FoundationOf course, I didn’t realize it then, but that night was the start of the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.  That night and the horrid days and nights that followed.  My painful experiences, burying my husband, the funerals of our friends, wanting to die, fighting to stay sober, the anger that swept through me and never left, pushing everyone away, fighting to stay in control of my life, fighting, fighting, fighting.  These experiences pulled me in the direction of wanting to be of service to others who were going through the same thing.  I needed to help others in the wildland community and I needed to do it in my husband’s name.

I wanted to create a legacy of giving in Eric’s name because that is who he was in life.  Our shared sober life meant that both of us had done things in our pasts we were not proud of and one of the ways Eric chose to make those wrongs right was to give people a chance to prove themselves on the crew.  He gave jobs to people others would never have even considered.  Eric had been given a second and third chance in his fire life and he needed to pay that forward, and he did, often.  I was their advocate, pulling for the underdogs through the fire season.  Losing that way of life hit me so hard and I needed to create something good, I needed something amazing in my life or I was not going to be able to hold on.  I needed something to work on, I needed to watch something grow out of the ash.  I needed to turn my pain, my empathy and compassion and my experiences into something positive to help others.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters came into fruition and I began raising money to donate to next of kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty.  One of the first next of kin we helped was Colleen Ricks.  Her husband Brandon was a helicopter pilot who perished on a prescribed fire when his helicopter went down in 2015.  I didn’t have Colleen’s contact information and so I called the church where Brandon’s services were just held and spoke to the pastor.  He gave me Colleen’s number.  I dialed the number, expecting to leave a message but a woman answered.  Her voice was heavy and sad, I knew it must be her.  I began to cry.  Through my tears I told her who I was and why I was calling and we stayed on the phone for a long time, both of us crying for each other, ourselves and for Brandon and Eric.  To this day Colleen is one of my best friends.  We understand each other in ways only widows can.

Our mission is simple: To assist next-of-kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty and wildland firefighters with PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been a long standing companion in my life.  From my first tragic loss in 1983 when my best friends were brutally murdered to my loss in the Yarnell Hill Fire, PTSD has never left my side.  I have had to adapt to its presence and get help to overcome the sometimes debilitating effects of its uninvited companionship.  I have a heart for others living with PTSD and for the families who surround these individuals.  The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters has been able to help wildland firefighters with PTSD by paying for their treatment and also by utilizing my history to lend emotional support to individuals who need it, both family of and wildland firefighters themselves.  My 11 years of sobriety has also helped wildland firefighters struggling with drug and alcohol problems.  I want to be of service and I want my experiences to give strength and hope to others.  What good is any of it if it is only helpful to me?

We believe there is so much need in the wildland community that there is room for us all to help each other and to give to each other.  Our foundation supports having many organizations that support and administer to the wildland community, the more the better.   We are always looking for volunteers to help us at events and for those wishing to have events for us.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters comes from the heart of Prescott, from the home base of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The place Eric and I met and fell in love, where my recovery and my life began.  Where I buried my husband and my friends, where my community of firefighters, police officers and all other first responders have picked me up time and time again.  Prescott is our home and we are proud to continue to serve our community and to grow outward from here.  Prescott is our home base and our foundation is important to the greater community of Prescott.  The Yarnell Hill Fire became a world event, but the Eric Marsh Foundation has grown here in this community which his given so much.  This community lost the guys, too.  They felt the deep impact of the loss and they cried with us.  We matter to our community and to the wildland community.

Although we call ourselves the Eric Marsh Foundation, we respect all the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots because they were all amazing men and deserve recognition for their lives and for their ultimate sacrifice.  We are united behind all wildland firefighters, first responders and all their families.  We have chosen to use the Granite Mountain Hotshot logo to reflect this respect and this love that our foundation has for the entire Granite Mountain Hotshot crew and all wildland firefighters.

If you need us, we are here.  We love our wildland community and we are staying strong to be of service in the best possible way.  We understand what you are going through and we are here for you and for your families.  Please visit our website: Ericmarshfoundation.org and follow us on Facebook at Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots live on in our hearts forever, they taught me so much, and they always guide my path as I make decisions that continue to honor them and their values.  Esse Quam Videri– To be, rather than to seem.  For them, with them, love them, we will honor them forever.

Granite Mountain logoAndrew Ashcraft – Age: 29
Robert Caldwell – Age: 23
Travis Carter – Age: 31
Dustin Deford – Age: 24
Christopher MacKenzie – Age: 30
Eric Marsh – Age: 43
Grant McKee – Age: 21
Sean Misner – Age: 26
Scott Norris – Age: 28
Wade Parker – Age: 22
John Percin- Age: 24
Anthony Rose- Age: 23
Jesse Steed- Age: 36
Joe Thurston- Age: 32
Travis Turbyfill – Age: 27
William Warneke – Age: 25
Clayton Whitted – Age: 28
Kevin Woyjeck – Age: 21
Garret Zuppiger – Age: 27

Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer

A behind the scenes story of action photography at a fast-moving wildfire in southern California.

Pilot Fire
A dozer tender on the Pilot Fire August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Since Jeff Zimmerman retired as a fire captain he spends much of his time photographing fires in California, getting up close and personal with the action. The state has a different, some would say more enlightened, way of handling the media at emergencies and disasters than some other areas. There are few restrictions as long as they do not interfere with incident operations (see California Penal Code 409.5d).

Jeff covered the Pilot Fire that so far has burned almost 8,000 acres in southern California near Crestline. He was there for the first two days, took these photos, and wrote down some of his thoughts.

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By Jeff Zimmerman

During the late afternoon of August 7, 2016, I received word from Tod Sudmeier about a fast moving wildfire along Highway 138 and Pilot rock in San Bernardino County. The first reports were that the fire was not accessible so I did not pay much attention to the pager. An hour after the initial alert rang out, the fire was reported to be a 1,000 acres and moving towards Highway 173 in Summit Valley. With this new information I responded from Towsley Park, cutting my nature hike short.

There was sweltering heat once again in Southern California, which appears to be the new norm, as monsoon moisture had moved to the east and relative humidity was rock bottom. The skies above the desert were clear blue but temperatures were soaring to triple digits.

Pilot Fire
PIlot Fire August 7 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Once again responding up the long trek of Highway 14 as I have numerous times before, I went east onto Pearblossom Highway and over the summit to Highway 138. A large plume of smoke was clearly visible — another major emergency wildfire threatening homes, chewing through decades old brush, threatening human and animal life. Insatiable flames were bearing down on rural ranches as people packed up livestock in trailers to get away from the menacing flames. Air tankers roared into the valley to cut off the advancing fire from the 17525 block of Highway 173. The fire was marching northeast at a rapid clip, dozers frantically working the fire line to halt advancing flames, but with little success.

This had the makings of yet another dangerous fire, probably human caused, possibly by negligence, hopefully not by arson. I continued through the flame front as the fire jumped Highway 173 and into the spillways of Lake Silverwood. Always moving to stay ahead of the flames, only powered by pure adrenalin and Gatorade, I reluctantly moved up canyon, seemingly to dance with the red devil. By nightfall it was evident that the fire was creeping up the steep brush covered desert slopes moving towards Lake Arrowhead up old Highway 173 into no man’s land. Old Highway 173 is now abandoned and will tear the front end off your vehicle off if you attempt to traverse it.

By twilight it looked as if a nuclear bomb had dropped over Summit Valley and ash was raining down on Hesperia nine miles to the north. Curious onlookers were wondering just how far this fire would travel and could it make it into Hesperia proper. Day was turning to night so a few more hours of shooting then it was time to call it quits.

At 11 p.m. I realized I needed to leave the scene, upload a few images, and get a few hours of rest. By 1 a.m. I arrived home, transferred photos into my computer, took a quick shower and went off to bed. Oh, how I know too well, the magic hour of 2 a.m.; finally some badly needed rest on an old lumpy mattress. I always hate those nagging heat cramps being so dehydrated; now the push is on to get fluids back into the body.

At 6 a.m. I was back at my daily chores, watering the crops, charging camera batteries, double-fisting coffee, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and then out the front door. I met Bernie Deyo in Palmdale at Ave S Park-and-Ride and it was off to the races again. The smoke was already billowing along Highway 173 at 10 a.m. We made a quick stop at Highway 138 and 15 freeways to stretch, pick up lunch at Del Taco. Then it was back onto the firelines.

By noon the fire was rolling, boiling behind homes. Structure protection was now in place and San Bernardino County firefighters from Medic Engine 224 were hunkering down behind a home with a charged 1 ½ inch hose line trying to protect the residence from fire. We parked facing out on a small dirt driveway, ready to escape the flames at a moment’s notice.

PIlot Fire Continue reading “Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer”

Six students receive scholarships honoring victims of Yarnell Hill Fire

Intended for one recipient, unexpected donated funds allowed six students to receive scholarships.

Photo above: left to right starting at the top: Tri-City College Prep Winners: Hannah Leber, MaKaylee Call and Shelbyrae Myers. Bagdad High School Winners: Alexandra Provencio and Marissa Rottnek. Prescott High School winner: Morgan Feingold.

(Guest post written by Katie Knoll)

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. (May 24, 2016) – Six Yavapai-area high school students each received $2,000 Grant McKee Service and Leadership Scholarships during May’s North Star Youth Partnership’s Celebration of Community breakfast.  The annual breakfast recognizes North Star’s teen leaders, programs, community partners, and volunteers. Originally intended as a single $2,000 scholarship, additional unexpected funds from the Taylor Family Foundation and the American Legion in Prescott allowed for each of the six finalists to win a scholarship.

“Seeing the shock and joy on the girls’ faces was priceless, and it was so much fun to have an ‘Oprah moment’ as everyone got a scholarship!” says Diane DeLong, North Star’s Senior Program Manager.

Grant Quinn McKee was one of the 19 firefighters who perished in the Yarnell fire in 2013, and he will forever be remembered for his service to the community, his leadership skills, and his desire to make the world a better place.  At Prescott High School, McKee was a member of North Star Youth Partnership’s Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) Program.  This scholarship, in its third year, honors McKee’s memory along with his cousin Robert Caldwell, a fellow Hot Shot and leader who also perished in the fire.

To qualify for the scholarship, students were required to be members of a PAL school program, which help teens learn skills to make a positive difference in their schools, community, and their own life.  PAL trains teens in communication and facilitation skills, active listening, decision-making, and problem solving, and PAL also exposes youth to service projects that impact their schools and communities.

The scholarship winners are Shelbyrae Myers, MaKaylee Call, and Hannah Leber, each of Tri-City College Prep; Morgan Feingold of Prescott High School; and Alexandra Provencio and Marissa Rottnek of Bagdad High School.  Each young woman wowed the scholarship review panel with her scholastic achievements, extracurricular activities, and community service.

Applications for the 2017 Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell Service and Leadership Scholarship will be accepted through North Star beginning January 2017.

For more information about North Star Youth Partnership and the Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) program or the Grant McKee/Robert Caldwell Service and Leadership Scholarship, please contact Diane DeLong, Senior Program Manager, at ddelong@cc-az.org.

Founded in 1933, Catholic Charities provides care for the vulnerable of all faiths in Phoenix and northern Arizona through programs in foster care, early start education, housing, veteran services, refugee relocation and poverty reduction. Learn more by visiting www.catholiccharitiesaz.org. Social connections include www.facebook.com/CatholicCharitiesAZ and twitter.com/CCArizona.