First line of wildfire defense: hilltop spotters

Even in this high-tech age, lookouts remain crucial to spotting fire threats on peaks across the West.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Perched on a hilltop in the steeply-canyoned Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, Ken Struck's summer place is a contradiction.

Surrounded by microwave towers beaming TV programs and cellphone conversations at high speed, it's a low-tech outfit with no running water and an outhouse. Security is an old .357-Magnum revolver in a leather holster hanging on the wall, and entertainment is feeding the chickadees and hummingbirds that whirl around the 200 square-foot cabin.

But this is no vacation hideaway designed for someone to read (or write) the Great American Novel free from the pressures of work and family. It's one of hundreds of fire lookout stations where men and women with a sense of duty and adventure scan the landscape for the first signs of fire.

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In a summer of major blazes that have incinerated nearly 4 million acres of forest and grassland, Mr. Struck and his fire-lookout colleagues across the West represent the first line of defense against wildfires. If this were war, they would be the special-ops guys dropped behind enemy lines to gather intelligence. And in an age of fire-spotting satellites and computer-operated radar systems that record lightening bolts, they're showing that one of the most important aspects of firefighting still comes down to someone with a pair of binoculars, a compass, and a map radioing in lightening strikes and sniffing for smoke.

No hilltop Hilton

About 60 miles north of Soda Mountain, Laura Glasscock is manning the White Point lookout in the Rogue River National Forest for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Her post is 5,050 feet up in the Cascade Mountains where she's working 10 days on and four days off from June through October.

It's pretty rough living, even compared to the year she spent in Tunisia in the Peace Corps. Bottled gas to run a stove and small refrigerator. A couple of small solar panels to power the radio and cell phone. No running water or indoor plumbing. Eight miles of rough unpaved road to get to her site from the asphalt. Area wildlife includes bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, and sketchy guys in pickups.

Visitors find that she doesn't keep eye contact for very long.

She's keeping up her scan while also watching the Timbered Rock fire about 10 miles away. Its smoke is boiling up as it spreads, creating the beginning of what will become a huge cumulus cloud. Such fires can create their own weather, including mini-thunderstorms with lightening. Within a few days, the Timbered Rock fire will have spread to more than 11,000 acres.

When Ms. Glasscock spots a lightening strike or new plume of smoke, she peers at it through a circular gadget called the "Osbourne Fire-Finder" (named after the lookout operator who invented it nearly a century ago), plots its approximate location, and radios in to the state forestry department.

Those who work in fire lookouts come from very different backgrounds. Many are retired loggers and ranchers accustomed to the burdens and glories of rural isolation. Ken Struck and his wife, Colleen, have been sharing the duties on Soda Mountain for 16 years, spending the rest of the year looking after their horses. Before that, he was a firefighter for 25 years in Medford, Ore.

Dominic Luebbers is a 19-year-old community-college student working at the Carpenter Mountain lookout in the Willamette National Forest this summer. It's his second summer as a lookout, and he collects and disseminates information on fire lookouts through his website.

A lonely life

It's Glasscock's first summer as a lookout, and the learning curve has been very steep. Telling the difference between smoke and haze or dust kicked up by logging operations miles away can be difficult. "You have to watch every little pocket, every little wispy thing," she says. Sometimes other firefighting staff will flash a mirror at her from miles away as a drill in spotting lightening strikes.

Though there's a fire community of sorts – dispatchers, firefighters, reconnaissance aircraft and fire tanker pilots, and lookouts, who keep in 24-hour radio contact – it's essentially a lonely life. "You've got to enjoy your own cooking," says Mr. Struck, warming up a pot of coffee for a visitor. "Yesterday I baked bread and ate the whole thing."

High-altitude inspiration

There's a Thoreauvian aspect to the existence. In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau wrote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...."

"Part of what brought me here was the chance to be both focused and simple," says Glasscock. She left her cello at home, but plays her wooden recorder while keeping watch.

Sometimes art emerges from the isolation. Jack Kerouac wrote his novel "Desolation Angels" while working as a fire lookout in Washington State in the summer of 1956. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder drew inspiration from his work as a lookout as well.

As fire detection methods become more sophisticated, the use of human lookouts is declining. Oregon once had 849 lookouts; now there are no more than 100. In many places around the country, retired lookout cabins now are rented out to campers. The revenue helps maintain other historic lookouts

Still, the men and women who continue to live and work in them remain a vital part of fighting fires.

"They're someone who's very familiar with the terrain and can let the dispatchers know specifically where the smoke is," says Jack DeGolia, of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "They're a 24-hour set of eyes."

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