Fighting Forest Fires – The Job of a Fire Lookout

| July 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

Few people give much thought to the slowly shrinking number of fire lookouts still quietly doing their jobs in forests all across the country. Yet these men and women still perform the same basic job as the predecessors have done for over one hundred years. This is to keep a very close eye on millions of acres of untouched forest lands.

A fire lookout surveys the scene. Photo Gary Yost. Follow Me on Pinterest

A fire lookout surveys the scene from his watchtower. Photo Gary Yost.

The First Fire Spotters

In 1910 a forest fire referred to as the “Big Blowup” raged across Montana, Idaho, and Washington State. Before the fire burned out it consumed over 3 million acres of prime forests. The smoke reached all the way to the East Coast. To help reduce the chances of such a massive fire burning out of control again, the Fire Lookout Service was formed by the Forest Service.

Over the course of time, aided by the Civilian Conservation Corps, hundreds of fire watch towers were built. These stations were all located on mountain ridges and peaks, or at the top of very tall framework structures with the intent of providing the fire spotter an unhindered view of the forests below. It would be his or her job to constantly survey the area under their charge for any evidence of a fire, and to report any fires to the Forest Service. The Forest Service then makes a decision regarding the type of response to be made to the fire.

The Osborne Fire Finder

Faced with constantly surveying an area of forests covering a full 360 degrees from his fire spotter tower, William B. Osborne developed a tool designed to make stating the actual location of the fire easier. The tool consisted of a metal disc with a map of the area attached to it. There are two sighting devices attached to it at 180 degrees from each other. By looking through them the fire spotter can line up the smoke in the center of the sights and then plot its exact location on the map.

This makes it much easier for the fire look out to call in the sighting and give the Forest Service a more accurate location. Although Osborne would make a number of improvements to the device he invented in 1911, the basic concept would remain the same. This device is still in use today despite major leaps in technology. These include satellite imaging, digital rangefinders, and more. While these devices also come into play, spotters still rely on old school technology to do their job.

A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout. from Gary Yost on Vimeo.

What Kind of Person Makes a Good Fire Lookout?

There is no one particular type of person who becomes a member of this dwindling career field. As with most careers, it takes a wide variety of personalities to make it work. However, the average spotter is someone who is not afraid to spend many hours alone with himself. In many cases the only time a lookout talks to another person on the average day is when he gives his morning and evening reports.

Depending on where his lookout tower is located, the spotter may see tourists and hikers from time to time, but can go for days or even weeks without seeing anyone on the job. Most work on a rotation basis which allows them to go into town to see their families, stock up on supplies, and take care of business. The job is just like most others, there are set office hours which are typically 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, seven days a week with an hour for lunch.

Most lookouts are conservationists and naturalists at heart, and love the forests and everything they represent. They enjoy spending solitary hours looking out over what many come to see as their world. A perfect example of what a fire spotter does can be seen in the video “A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout.” Once you see how the average spotter spends their days during fire season it becomes much easier to see why so many still enjoy this decades old job and hope that it never comes to an end.

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