All Along the Watchtower

Alberta’s lookout staff are part of one of the oldest and best methods of fire detection. However, it’s more than protecting the wilderness that keeps so many of these modern nomads coming back year after year.

By Billie Gates

“A day at the fire tower is a whole different thing,” remarked the forest ranger on The Red Green Show, meaning to be funny. Truer words were never spoken, though. Time at the tower is just not the same as time in town. Each day seems to last a hundred years, but the weeks flip by faster than decent. Or is that old age talking? After all, we’ve been at the lookout for 27 years.

Ross has climbed either a 100-foot or an 80-foot ladder at least 9,990 times in his career, the equivalent of 801,720 feet, or about 400 climbs to the top of Mount Everest. Back in 1973, as a young bride wanting to take a lively interest, I climbed up twice. It hurt my knees and as soon as I got up there I had to go to the bathroom. The work was interesting, but the cupola made me nervous, giving me the same feeling as when the Sulphur Mountain gondola stops mysteriously between the pylons, and you hang there over the trees for long minutes with no idea why you are not moving or whether you will have to be rescued by helicopter. Happily, being in the cupola does not bother Ross one little bit.

One thing that never makes me nervous is being alone in nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “Why should we not also enjoy an original relationship to the Universe,” and living at a lookout tower provides you with a terrific opportunity to do just that. Working the lookouts is not a job so much as a lifestyle: it is as close to being a nomad as anybody gets these days. We travel with the geese, heading north in the spring and returning south in the fall. We become adept at instant adjustments, rapid adaptations. For the 130 or so Alberta lookout staff, it’s dishwashers and the Internet one day, outhouses and sponge baths the next. We can all make bread and yogurt and sprout mung beans, because it might be over a month before we get any fresh groceries delivered. We learn to wash in a teacup, and water our gardens with the dishwater. We do laundry on the same rigs I’ve seen in Alberta pioneer museums—the galvanized washtubs and the wooden scrub board.

Now in the new millennium, though, change is afoot. While the basic tool of the business, an elegant brass instrument called the Osborne Fire Finder, has not changed in over 60 years, nearly everything else has.

Beginning in 1890 and continuing until the late 1960s, the province built a network of 130 lookouts and towers. To clarify, “lookouts” are located on heights of land and do not require a tower to see over the forest, whereas “towers” involve steel ladders up to 120 feet high, with a cupola on top housing the detection instruments. The stations offer fixed-detection coverage for all of Alberta’s forests, each one overlooking an area about the size of Prince Edward Island. Over the years, with settlement encroachment, some of the towers have been taken down or moved and others have been built. The result is an unparalleled system of forest fire detection, arguably the best in the world. This fact seems to fly in the face of modern technologies. Most other jurisdictions in North America have gone to fancier methods, everything from aircraft patrols to satellite surveillance, but the statistics show Alberta’s system of humans watching the forest is by far the best and most cost-effective method. These days, when anyone on earth wants expertise in forest fire detection and suppression, they come to Alberta.

The osborne fire finder looks like it belongs on a 16th century sailing ship. The graceful brass instrument operates with blissful simplicity. As long as it has the full participation of a human being, the Fire Finder can pinpoint a wisp of smoke with great accuracy anywhere within 40-plus kilometres of the tower. The location can be as accurate as the legal subdivision of the quarter section of the section of the township and range, which means the lookout can guide firefighters to within a few metres of a smoke. Alberta Forest Service aims for lookouts to spot smokes while they are less than 0.1 hectares in size, and to report them within three minutes of ignition. They met these goals an impressive 93 per cent of the time in 2003. In the late 1940s, 17 per cent of wildfires were discovered by lookouts; now it’s about 45 per cent. The rest are reported by the public, (who are all over the forest these days, hunting for wood and gas and oil and animals), and by aircraft.

In the old days, lookout observers were taken to their towers by horse and pack mule if there wasn’t a road, and there usually wasn’t. They had to chop their own wood, hunt their own meat, and usually live in a shack with a dirt floor. Now we have it soft—all lookouts have electricity, supplied by a combination of generators, solar and wind power, even line power where possible. The roads have improved, too—most lookouts are accessible by truck, with the extremely remote ones serviced by helicopter. Each lookout has a decent cabin with refrigerator (usually propane), heater, propane stove and separate bedroom. Each has an office full of maps and radio equipment, the radio still being the prime means of communication, although cell phones are making welcome inroads. High-powered spotting scopes and binoculars, as well as new cupola and tower designs, all help the observer do a better job. The worker wears a safety harness to climb the tower, and must take regular safety, first aid and hazardous goods courses. The lookouts of 1900 would not recognize their jobs today.

Mind you, the first time we went to a lookout, as newlyweds in 1973, we didn’t feel so lucky. Whereas lookout staff now go to Hinton for a six-day training course, back then there was no training at all. The forest ranger (another extinct species, replaced some years ago with the “forest officer”) dropped us off at O’Chiese Tower after a few hours of bumping north and west from Rocky Mountain House. He wished us luck and hightailed it back to town. Nobody showed us how to work the radio or use the weather instruments. Nobody explained the three regular radio schedules a day. The cabin itself was bare of furniture and had a pool of black sump water under the kitchen. That first night we slept on the floor. It was filth. Keeping a place clean when you don’t have running water is not easy, and obviously the previous tenant had not been troubled by the scum on the walls. Mouse droppings filled the drawers, and mice scampered all over the cupboards and stove. The propane heater wouldn’t work properly and the oven wouldn’t light. This was all resolved the next day, when the ranger returned with cleaning supplies and a bed. He taught me to make bannock, since the oven wasn’t about to bake bread, and he gave Ross enough on-the-spot training to do a good job.

One of the regular duties at the lookout is “weather.” Twice a day we take observations and readings from the Stevenson Screen and report them to headquarters. I believe about 45 per cent of the Alberta weather information fed to Environment Canada comes from lookouts. Once a day we calculate “fire weather indices,” using the weather facts to determine the burnability of various layers of the forest, from the underground “duff” and surface “fine fuels,” to the tree- top canopy. Humidity, temperature, wind and accumulated degree of drought affect all of this. Today, to observe the wind speed, you simply glance at an instrument on the desk in the cabin, but in 1973 you had to take the supplied “Big Ben” alarm clock (unless you owned a watch with a second hand), go outside to a wooden box nailed to a tree, open the box and flip the switch, which would start a little light bulb blinking. You had to shelter the box with your body, or you couldn’t see the blinks in the glare of the sun. You counted the blinks for one minute, sort of like taking somebody’s pulse. The number of blinks equalled the wind speed in miles per hour. This sounds simple enough, but on windy, rainy days it could be an unpleasant challenge.

As an aging lookout wife, I revel in all the mod cons at our tower. We are among the lucky ones with line power. I no longer get swollen knuckles kneading bread dough: I have a bread machine now! Everything but running water and an indoor toilet, and it’s all set down in a generous clearing on a pine ridge. I can see about a hundred miles from the kitchen window. This ridge is a medicine area for the local First Nations people, and it certainly does have an aura about it.

The lodgepole pine is Alberta’s provincial tree, and we live with them intimately here. Our cabin nestles beside and un- der six mature specimens, and 20 others surround the clearing. Not one of them looks like a tree in a book, though. They look like overgrown bonsai. Each one is a unique individual, with either a twisted trunk, a double trunk, or a triple trunk, and most of them have two tree tops. They are exuberant and full of life, spewing us with thick greenish pollen for weeks every June. They shelter a gang of noisy squirrels and song- birds. Nearly every year our clearing draws black bears, moose, elk, porcupines, occasionally wolves and lynx. Always we see ravens, owls, eagles and hawks.

All summer our piney clearing is a meadow of ever-changing wild flowers. We also have a lawn here in the wilderness; most lookout sites do. It has never seen fertilizer or herbicide and is comprised of clover, dandelions and plantain as much as grass. It gets mowed down to bare dirt sometimes, it has never been watered except by Mother Nature, and I bet it looks at least as good as any lawn in the city.

Ross’s work has him up the tower most of the time. He has to get up really early to have any time for himself. Cupola occupancy requirements state the lookout person must be in the tower at least every two hours until 6 p.m. on low hazard. On medium hazard it is hourly till noon and then every half hour until 7 p.m. High or extreme hazard requires continuous occupancy for all daylight hours. Now, considering Ross does morning weather at 7:30 a.m., and the sun can stay bright till after 10:30 p.m. in summer, this makes for a pretty long day.

Ross’s books list “permanent smokes” from industry, campgrounds and people’s incinerators—he can have up to 800 of these, although not all of them will be active at once. There will also be up to 100 “permit smokes” at a time, and again the number of these actually burning at once varies. Every smoke he sees must be accounted for, so they are all documented for quick reference. If a smoke isn’t listed, he radios headquarters with a “smoke report,” and the fire suppression people immediately take action. This is exacting work, requiring constant split-second decisions. No technology has been found that can equal the human eye and brain in this situation. Although technologies enhance the lookout’s capabilities, it is reassuring to know this is one place where the computer doesn’t necessarily come first.

The daily cost of suppression for a big fire can easily reach the million-dollar mark. The daily cost of maintaining a fire tower, wages included, probably comes in just under $200. So, if a lookout prevents even one good-sized fire a year, it is worth its weight in taxpayers’ gold. We tend to see the forest as a lumberyard these days, or a recreation area. But every time lookouts prevent a big fire, it not only saves lumber and campgrounds, it saves habitat for countless animal and plant species. It seems to me this is good work.

It is easy going into the bush every spring, a simple transition; the return home is much harder. They say solitude is more addictive than heroin. Something keeps people coming back to lookouts year after year, and it sure isn’t the money or the luxurious accommodations. When we started this life, quietness was almost anathema. We wore out countless batteries playing the FM radio. Back then we didn’t own a television, and CDs hadn’t been invented yet, so for entertainment we dragged along a record player, speakers and a box of LPs. When the generator was running, we boogied! But every year the peace of quietness captivated us a bit more, and the noise we generated diminished. Now, we are perfectly happy with no radio or CDs, and we never remember to turn on the television. We are too busy.

Once your ears switch to “bush mode,” though, it presents a problem forevermore. When you go to the city again you feel like you are being assaulted by sounds. The normal noise of people and vehicles overwhelms you and jangles your nerves. I suppose you must reacclimatize after a while, but I’ve never stuck around that long.

The silence of the forest is a false idea anyway. Nature is not so quiet; it is full of animals and birds and breezes. After a while you can tell from the sound of the breeze both the kind of trees it is blowing through and its velocity. Your ears become tuned for distance. You automatically note and file all manner of sounds your townie visitors don’t even notice.

Mind you, they seem to keep themselves busy chattering and slapping the insects attracted to their body odours. After you have lived in the fresh air for a while, you begin to notice that people stink. Not of natural body odours, but of chemical scents endemic in the myriad products we use to prevent ourselves from being smelly. Our shampoo, soap, deodorant, body lotion, laundry detergent and anti-static dryer sheets. It all adds up.

This is what you do here if you want a shower. You go to the rain barrel and fill a five-gallon bucket with water, carry it inside and decant it into an assortment of pots and kettles on your stove. You heat the water, put it back in the bucket, and haul it outside again. You find a spot with enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but not so much as to make you shiver when wet. You set the bucket down and gather your soap, face cloth, towels, shampoo and, most important, your plastic jug. You take off all your clothes and proceed to scoop a jugful of water and pour it over your head and body. You apply shampoo and soap, and then you pour more jugs of water on yourself until you are rinsed down. Usually four gallons is plenty. It is vital to wear plastic sandals for this process; otherwise you end up standing in mud and getting your feet even dirtier by the time you mince back to the cabin. As soon as you dry off, you must fetch the accoutrements back indoors or the squirrels will steal the facecloth, the jays will eat the soap, and the shampoo will go weird if it gets too much sun. This is all quite time-consuming, so you don’t do it every day. Plus, there is usually not enough water for this head-to-toe treat. But I guarantee you will feel so much cleaner after a “tower shower” than after any bath at home. Maybe it’s the wind and sun scouring you as much as the water and soap. Or maybe it’s the pleasure of the attendant birds and squirrels. I have occasionally felt like I was in a Disney cartoon, as I shampooed my hair while surrounded by singing goldfinches, purple finches, grey jays, rabbits and squirrels.

Doing laundry at the lookout follows the same procedure as having a bath. You haul and heat and haul water until finally your galvanized tin washtub is full of warm soapy water and dirty clothes. You then apply your muscles to the scrubbing board or the plunger, which is a metal cone-shaped thing on a sort of broom handle that you pull and push up and down in a dismal facsimile of the action of a real washing machine. After your arms give out, you usually decide to let the clothes sit for a while, to allow the dirt to leach out of the fabric. Then, a day or so later you approach the problem refreshed, and plunge again until your arms give out, again. Next, wring each item out, by hand, and get rid of the unbelievably filthy water. Now comes the rinse cycle. You refill the washtub and drop the wet clothing back in, after untwisting the cold wet lumps you made when you wrung out the wash water in the previous step. Then you plunge again, wring again and peg the clothes out on the line where the birds can get a good crack at them with their droppings. Did you know purple finches have purple droppings? Well, they do.

The artist manwoman, an Alberta boy now living in BC, was a tower man for a few years in the 1960s. He says his time at White Mountain fire tower changed his life, and writes about it in one of his books. This same lookout inspired a Harlequin romance written about the author’s experiences at the tower. A few years ago a novel called Burning Ground, by Pearl Luke, sold very well. Lookout people are often artists or writers, and a lot of works have been produced in these places. American “beat” poets Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac both spent time on lookouts in Washington state. The Bahamas minister for culture and tourism used to be an Alberta lookout man. So did the curator of the Royal Farm Museum on the Isle of Wight. Physicians, college professors, business people, even stockbrokers have spent time protecting Alberta’s forests. No matter how successful they become later, they forever harbour a pang of regret that they didn’t spend more time on towers.

These days it’s getting hard to find work on a tower: applications flood the Forest Service every spring, but there is not much movement in the ranks. A high percentage of look- out staff are veterans with over 20 years experience, and every spring they return to the forest from places as far flung as Africa, New York, Vancouver and Mexico as well as all over Alberta. It’s a hard life to leave. People speak of it as “the velvet trap.” It’s so seductive to be alone in the wilderness with time to contemplate and time to appreciate the glories of the natural world. Intentionally or not, you enter a state of automatic and continuous meditation. The peace that people seem to attain this way benefits them more than any doctor’s prescription.

They say solitude is more addictive than heroin. Something keeps people coming back to lookouts year after year, and it sure isn’t the money or the luxurious accommodations. We are perfectly happy with no radio, CDs or television.

There is the clothing problem, though. You tend to strip down at the lookout. You are alone; it is harder to wash your clothes than to wash your body, so if you are doing a dirty job, like scrubbing the floor, it makes sense to undress for the occasion. Also, on a hot day, you just sort of keep shedding layers until you are comfortable. Neither of these forms of nudity is acceptable in polite society, and every fall we must remind ourselves of appropriate behaviour.

One legendary lookout served for 50 consecutive years. I can’t see us lasting that long, but you never know. You have to live some- where, and it seems to me that living half of it in the forest, serving a valuable function for the planet, can’t be such a bad thing.

Billie Gates lives in Mirror, Alberta, and at the White Mountain fire tower. Her article “The Queen of Paradise” appeared in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue of Alberta Views.



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