Firefighter in the Field: An Office in the Sky

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By: Trina

Some joke that a veteran lookout observer can wake up in the morning, step outside their cabin, take one long look up at the sky, and feel in their bones what kind of fire day it’s going to be. Of the 127 lookout observers in Alberta, the majority have at least a few seasons of spotting smoke under their belts, while some of the veterans have been doing it for decades. It’s the kind of unique, solitary job that keeps people coming back, summer after summer, for more action.

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Lookout observers are forestry’s eyes and ears in the alpine, foothills, and boreal regions of Alberta. They serve as the first line of defense in wildfire detection. In 2015, over 25% of the wildfires in the Peace River District were reported by lookout observers.

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This summer, I’ve embarked on my first season as a lookout observer, stationed for 4 to 5 months at a 100-foot tower up in the Peace Country. My main responsibility? Keep my eyes glued to the horizon, in all directions, to report smokes when they’re still just a wisp smoke – less than 0.01 hectares, ideally – so they can be quickly extinguished by firefighting crews. Sounds simple, right?

Not always. Trust me, every day is a new day for a rookie lookout living and working in the boreal forest. I’m learning to see and read what’s around me to do what the tower veterans do from years of cultivated instinct. To be able to predict: will the forest burn today? If so, where am I likely to spot a smoke?

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The lookout’s answers are hidden up in the sky and down below in the forest. From the moment I step foot outside my cabin, I’m searching for clues. Is the sky a solid, true blue, or scattered with “altocumulus”? (Altocumulus is a middle-level cloud layer, the kind of cloud that resembles a sandbar, or old washing board).

Are the aspen trees shaking madly in the wind like tambourines, or barely moving at all?

Temperature, humidity, wind, cloud formations, and rain fall. These are the factors that determine the likelihood of wildfires, and subsequently, the number of hours I’ll spend up in my “office” every day, scanning the horizon for smoke. On extreme fire hazard days, my shift at the office lasts from dawn till dusk.

The lookout observer’s office is called a cupola. The cupola is a small, octagon shaped dome, perched atop a 100-foot steel tower, that offers a 360-degree view of my 40-km radius area. In the centre of the cupola sits the lookout’s most important piece of technology.

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Nope. Not a computer. Nothing that can be plugged in, actually.

Instead, it’s the Osborne fire finder. A large iron disk that serves as a kind of compass for lookouts. First created in 1915 by an American forester named William Osborne, the fire finder continues to be, world over, the most common mode for locating wildfires from fire tower lookouts. My fire finder is at least 40 years old. By 1975, fire finder manufacturers had completely shut down – although the device remains as essential today as it was 100 years ago.

My fire finder is positioned at the geographical centre of my area of responsibility, set on true north, and numbered clockwise from 0 to 360 degrees. A movable scope and built-in crosshairs swivel around the disc, so I can line up a smoke through the crosshairs, look down to record the number, and provide the Fire Centre with a directional bearing from my tower to the smoke.

There’s a myth that lookout observers work alone, but this is only true in physical sense. Instead, lookout observers rely on a “community” of other tower people. When smoke appears on the landscape, a lookout might call up one of their “neighbours” over the radio for help to locate the smoke.

“I’ve got a bearing of 55 degrees, 20 minutes on a smoke here,” I might say to my tower neighbour. If he, too, can see the smoke from his lookout tower, he provides a bearing, or what we call a “cross-shot” on the smoke.

Using triangulation from the two bearings, and a mapping system, we can pinpoint, fairly accurately, an exact location. If no cross-shots can be made, I have to estimate a distance from the tower to the smoke – and this is where it can get challenging.

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In early July, I watched as the clouds rolled themselves into big, black battleships and – CRACK! – violently dropped “dry strikes” (lightning strikes that occur without rainfall) from the cloud to the treetops. Dry strikes have the potential to torch dry stands of trees and, depending on the weather conditions, ignite much larger, more ferocious wildfires.

One afternoon, I witnessed multiple cloud to ground strikes to my northeast. Minutes after, a skinny column of white smoke snaked up from the area. I spun my fire finder around to capture it through the crosshairs. I estimated the smoke was only 15 kilometers away – too far for my nearest neighbour to provide a cross-shot.

“Fire Centre, I’m calling with a pre-smoke,” I said as calmly as I could muster into the radio mic.

Lookout observers are expected to call in smokes within five minutes of spotting them, although the veterans do it within seconds. The whole system is sprung into action by a lookout’s pre-smoke report. Minutes later, a helicopter with a firefighting crew was descending on the landscape, looking for the smoke.

What followed was a game of “fire hide and seek” – what happens frequently with many lightning-caused fires that are reported by lookouts. The smoke puffed up for several minutes before eventually dropping down into the trees and disappearing out of sight. The helicopter hovered and circled the area, flew back and forth on my bearing, but couldn’t see any trace of the smoke.

“Better luck tomorrow,” said the crew leader over the radio. Later, a blue curtain of rain doused the area where I’d reported the smoke and, most likely, Mother Nature extinguished the wildfire on her own.

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So it goes with spotting and reporting smokes, I’m learning. Every day brings about new skies, new burning conditions, and new smokes to write home about.

It’s little wonder lookout observers migrate back to their fire tower perches, summer after summer. I can’t imagine working from any other office.

1 Comment

  1. […] two hours to do the ritual 360-scan. On high and extreme days, we’re confined to the cupola – our office in the sky – from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., eyes glued to storm cells, searching for the quick flash of lightning, […]

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