Looking for signs of fire is all in a day’s work

Donavan W. Albert
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
August 22nd, 2013 at 5:00PM

Bob Clark is a seasonal employee who spends the better part of his summer on a fire lookout in Northern California. Here’s how Clark describes a typical day on the tower:

An historic image of the Orr Mountain Lookout built in 1934 on the Klamath  National Forest. At 5:00 a.m. the sun rises at the Orr Mountain Lookout on the Klamath National Forest in Northern California, the way it has for nearly 80 years. Summertime means cool temperatures at night, which rapidly increase as the day marches on. After my morning coffee and breakfast, an initial 360-degree scan is performed by walking around the lookout’s catwalk. The scan is performed with a naked eye at first, then with binoculars to confirm the presence of smoke.

The previous day’s storm brought more than 300 lightning strikes. Any one of these lightning strikes could ignite a new wildfire. Often times the effects from storms like these won’t be seen for two or three days. Tree roots might ignite first, allowing fire to slowly creep through the tree’s inner core up to the surface. Once smoke begins to paint the sky, I can usually spot it 30 miles away on a clear day.

The new fire starts from last night’s storm and starts from a storm several nights ago can been seen from the platform at an elevation of 5,830 feet. Using visual, countryside landmarks, the smoke plumes are mapped and azimuths are recorded, an old-school way to geographically locate each smoke plume.

Azimuths are obtained using the Osborne Fire Finder. Radioing a neighboring lookout tower can help to triangulate the smoke locations using each other’s azimuths. This method of triangulating a fire that is 30 miles away is accurate within 100 yards.

Lightning didn’t strike my tower last night. But it has before on three occasions. This tower is well grounded so most of the energy gets safely diverted. When lightning does get close, all electronics are shut off. And, in the center of the lookout, is a chair with glass insulated legs clear of any metal objects. This is where I, walkie-talkie in hand, wait out the storm. A large boom that shakes the tower and a blinding flash signals a strike hit the tower. Sometimes residual static electricity dances from window to window. Eventually all the energy is absorbed by the lightning rods and is sent into the ground. After the energy has dissipated, it’s safe to move around and resume lookout operations.

A picture of the Orr Mountain Lookout as it stands today. It’s now 7:30 a.m. My morning fire report is transmitted to dispatch at the Command Center in Yreka, Calif. My morning report includes an estimate of each fire’s size, location and behavior, as well as weather at the lookout. On a busy morning, I might transmit five or more new starts to dispatch.

Later on this morning I’ll assist inbound fire crews by advising them on best access routes to the fires. Many fires can’t be seen from the ground.

At 8:00 a.m. weather at the lookout is observed and recorded.

At 10:00 a.m. I tune into the fire weather forecast and morning report from dispatch. By now, trains are usually starting rolling down the tracks well below the mountaintop. In rare circumstances these trains have triggered new starts alongside the tracks. Another scan for smoke is performed after a train passes by. Sometimes there’s up to ten trains a day.

Every ten minutes I keep a watchful eye on my area, including the fires I just reported and for any new smoke. Looking for fire is a constant observation process, scanning 360 degrees, and then repeating. During thunderstorms, the intensity and frequency of my scans is increased.

At 11:00 a.m. a second weather observation is performed and recorded. At 1:00 p.m. I radio in the weather report for my lookout.

Solitude is part of the job, which is probably a good thing as I tend to sing better when I’m alone. Music from my solar-powered radio keeps me company. Visitors are few and far between. A hiker or a camper might show up today. If I do get a visitor, I show them what we do and educate them as to the importance of stewardship in protecting our resources for future generations. More likely, my visitors for today will be bear, bald eagles, coyotes, deer, and squirrels.

At 2:00 p.m. a third weather observation is performed and recorded.

At 4:15 p.m. I tune into the afternoon’s fire weather forecast from dispatch then, at 4:30 p.m., all the lookouts in the area do a group radio check to make sure everybody is OK. The final weather observation is at 5:00 p.m.

Today’s shift ends at 6:00 p.m. since there are no forecasted weather systems in the area. If there were, I’d be working late until the weather passed. Working late isn’t a bad thing. On a clear night like tonight, the stars are bright, the moon is full, and it’s almost like daylight. Plus, frequent meteor showers will provide natural firework displays that keep me entertained.

At times it feels like a thankless job, perhaps because of the solitude. But I know I’m valued, and I enjoy serving as our nation’s first line of defense, protecting our treasured landscapes and wildlife habitat. That’s what I find most rewarding.