Opinion: Staffed lookout towers are an effective tool for firefighters

Above: The new 40-foot fire lookout tower at Big Pocono State Park in Monroe County, PA 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.

Pennsylvania builds 16 new fire lookout towers

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

While most land managers are abandoning their fire lookout towers or installing electronic systems to detect wildfires, the state of Pennsylvania is going old school.

From PA Environment Digest Blog:

In September 2017, [Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] began a $4.6 million Department of General Services capital project to replace 16 forest fire lookout towers on state forest land. Many of the original towers still in operation today were constructed in the 1920s through 1940 and needed to be replaced.

The new fire towers are sturdier to meet today’s structural and foundation code requirements. They will be safer to ascend, with improved stairs and railings, and be topped with weather-proof cabs.

Below is an excerpt from an article at National Public Radio:


…This spring marks the first fire season for the 16 new towers built in Pennsylvania last year.

Gary Weber, treasurer of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, was surprised by the project.

“My first reaction was, ‘Really?’” he said. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Over the past few decades, Weber has seen many states end their lookout programs. Pennsylvania is the only state recently to build new towers on such a scale.

“Nationwide, we figure there were somewhere over 9,000 lookout structures built along the way and probably a little over 2,500 actually left standing, but a lot of those are just abandoned,” Weber said.

He estimates 500 are still staffed, as states turn to other methods of fire detection like planes, cameras and citizen reports from cell phones.

“There are a lot of places where if people see smoke, they will get 10 calls to the 9-1-1 center,” said Mike Kern chief of the division of forest fire protection for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the forest districts. “There’s other places in north-central Pennsylvania especially where no one will see a fire for a couple hours.”

Even if someone wanted to report a fire, they’d have a hard time finding cell service in the Pennsylvania Wilds. That’s one of the reasons why five of the new towers are in the Moshannon Forest District.

John Hecker, manager of the Moshannon Forest District, said the alternative is paying upwards of $1,000 per hour for a plane to search for fires.

“Our towers always spot the smoke quicker,” he said. “Just a little tiny column of smoke comes up, and they’re looking at that against the blue of the horizon and they can spot that.”

Most of Pennsylvania’s new lookouts replaced aging ones at the same location. The forest districts staff about two dozen towers statewide on warm, dry, windy days in the spring, as well as in the fall when fires tend to pop up again.

Introduction to the Benchmark fire lookout in Colorado

Above: Richard Freimuth and his wife staff the Benchmark fire lookout in southwest Colorado. Screen grab from the video.

The SWC Wildfire Coalition posted this video to You Tube featuring Richard Freimuth and his wife who staff the Benchmark fire lookout on the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado.

The description posted with the video:

Even in today’s high tech world, humans are still the best when it comes to detecting fires. A bygone, iconic fire watchtower and lookout still have relevance in today’s infrared satellite world.
https://www.facebook.com/SanJuanNF/

Sequoia National Forest plans to rebuild Needles Lookout destroyed by fire

Needles Lookout Tower
Needles Lookout Tower, July 28, 2011.

The U.S. Forest Service intends to rebuild the iconic Needles Lookout Tower in the Giant Sequoia National Monument located in the Sequoia National Forest. It was destroyed by fire July 28, 2011 when an ember from the wood stove’s chimney in the structure ignited the shake shingle roof. Burning debris raining down as the structure burned caused additional fires below the rocky precipice.

The lookout tower in central California was constructed in 1937-38 by the Civilian Conservation Corps atop the rock formation at 8,245 feet.  Access was along a series of stairways and walkways suspended from the granite or across granite outcrops.

In attempting to get an update on the status of the reconstruction, we contacted the USFS’ Western Divide and Hume Lake Ranger Districts. They referred us to Del Pengilly, President of the Giant Sequoia National Monument Association who is coordinating many of the efforts to rebuild the structure. Mr. Pingilly told us that the GSNMA has raised $30,000 of the $50,000 they will need, and if they meet their goal they hope to begin construction in 2015. Apparently the non-profit 501(c)(3) organization is taking on much of the work themselves, including soliciting the volunteered time of civil engineer Bill Roberts of Porterville, California who is drawing up the plans for the project. The new design will include the use of fire resistant materials.

Other than raising the funds needed, one of the hurdles is getting the plans approved by the U.S. Forest Service so that the volunteers from GSNMA can begin work.

Mr. Pengilly said they will be happy to accept donations from anyone who wants to help raise the last $20,000 they need.

Needles Lookout burningUPDATE November 5, 2014:

Below is a photo of the Visitor Center at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, taken May 14, 2007 — a structure that at that time also had a shake shingle roof. I believe it still has a shake shingle roof.

Shake shingle roof Devils Tower National Memorial
Shake shingle roof on the visitor’s center at Devils Tower National Monument. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (click to enlarge)

 

Wildfire briefing, September 10, 2014

Time-lapse video of Meadow Fire

time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire
Screen grab from the NPS time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire.

The National Park Service has posted a very cool time-lapse video of the early hours of the expansion of the Meadow Fire when it grew from 19 acres to over 700. More information about the Meadow Fire.

“Send the elevator back down”

Mentoring young firefighters who have the potential to become future leaders is one of the more important responsibilities of seasoned wildland firefighters. Of course the same principle applies in other fields as well. The award winning actor Kevin Spacey has been doing this for years through his Kevin Spacey Foundation and by leading workshops to cultivate emerging artists in the performing arts.

In an interview with NBCNews he was asked what motivated him to get involved in mentoring young artists. He said:

Jack Lemmon – who was my mentor – passed along his philosophy of “sending the elevator back down” and so I am continuing to do exactly that through the work of my Foundation.

Happy Camp Fire Complex achieves Megafire status

The huge fire on the Klamath National Forest continues to work its way across the landscape of northwest California. The Incident Management Team reports it has now burned 105,194 acres, crossing what we call the unofficial threshold of 100,000 acres to obtain the Megafire label. The Team is calling it 30 percent contained.

No residences had been damaged or destroyed on the fire until Monday, when two burned in the Scott River Road area. One of those belonged to 75-year old Nancy Hood who has been continuously staffing a fire lookout for 56 years on the Klamath National Forest. A fund has been established to help Ms. Wood in her time of need. We posted more information about the effort earlier today.

Smokejumpers warn about link between climate change and wildfires

A group of seven Montana smokejumpers have written an opinion piece that was published in the Missoulian.

Below are some excerpts:

…Scientists say that climate change has implications for wildfire danger. We believe them. Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” – Science, Vol. 13:927 (2006).

Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.

[…]

We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.

Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources – coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property and jobs in doing so.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Mike.

Record-setting lookout loses home in Happy Camp Fire Complex

Nancy Hood receives lookout award
Nancy Hood received the Gene McGaugh Memorial 2012 Lookout of the Year Award from Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham. USFS photo.

The person who holds the record for staffing a fire lookout tower for the longest period of time in an unbroken span in one National Forest lost her home in the Happy Camp Fire Complex on Monday. Nancy Hood had to evacuate the Lake Mountain Lookout on the Klamath National Forest a few weeks ago when it was threatened by the fire. As she left, the tower was wrapped in fire shelter material to protect it from the flames. Then Ms. Hood had to evacuate her home at Scott River Road in northwest California when the fire spread in that direction. Her house was destroyed on Monday along with one other residence and two outbuildings.

An effort is underway to help Ms. Hood in time of need. Funds are being collected at GoFundMe.com where anyone can donate to an account set up for her.

Ms. Hood, 75 years old, is in her 56th year of working as a fire lookout. In 2011 an article in the Mail Tribune said, “Her unbroken span as a fire lookout in one forest is believed to be the longest in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, according to both the agency and the national Forest Fire Lookout Association”.

The remains of Nancy Hood's house. Photo from the GoFundMe site.
The remains of Nancy Hood’s house. Photo from the GoFundMe site.

Below is an excerpt from an announcement the Klamath National Forest published when Ms. Hood received the Gene McGaugh Memorial 2012 Lookout of the Year Award.

****

“The Klamath National Forest is pleased to announce Nancy Hood as the recipient of the 2012 Gene McGaugh Memorial Lookout of the Year. The recipient of this annual award is selected by lookout and fire prevention personnel from multiple agencies in the Siskiyou County area.

“Nancy is a prime example of someone with a deep passion for serving the American people by caring for the land,” said Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham. “We are proud to have people like Nancy watching over and helping to protect national forest and other lands alike.”

Hood has been working on the Klamath National Forest as a Fire Detection Lookout for 55 years. She began her Forest Service career in the summer of 1959 while still a Mechanical Engineering student at Sacramento City College. After that summer out in what she sees as the steep and rugged paradise of the Klamath, Hood began searching for a life-long career as a Fire Detection Lookout.

Hood has served at Lake Mountain Lookout since 1992, the oldest lookout in the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service. It was originally constructed in 1911/12 and in 1996 was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register. The basement is original to the structure, while the “cab” on top of the structure is “new”, dating back to 1933.

Hood has had an influence in the training of many new lookouts during her lengthy career. “I really try to impress upon them to learn the country – learn your area first, expand out to the districts next to you and just keep up with the looking,” she said. ”

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Don.