Our future after the fire: Fire lookout towers

Fire lookout towers have a storied history. Is there a role for them in the future?

Posted: Aug 16, 2019 8:17 AM

PLUMAS NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. – Human capital versus technology and which is more effective? That is a question those who spot wildfires ask when it comes to early detection.

Action News Now Anchor Julia Yarbough recently traveled to Plumas National Forest to learn first-hand the role of fire lookouts in quickly spotting fires.

Fire lookout towers have a storied history. The first U.S. Forest Service tower went up in 1905 in Maine. By the 1940’s, their numbers had reached more than 4-thousand across the country. In California, only a few staffed lookout towers remain. One man who has given years watching over the landscape believes that is a mistake.

Wayne Pease knows every peak and ravine in the area. He even recognizes subtle nuances of shifting wind. He has been scanning the Plumas National Forest horizon for 56 years and knows the region perhaps better than the back of his own hand. He says he can see about a half million acres that no one else can. He says there is valley on each side of the tower, with some 4-thousand feet below the lookout. He says when he scans the horizon, he can see what is going on. .

A rugged and dusty road brings Pease to his isolated Mt. Hough perch, a short distance from Quincy. It is a mostly solitary, ten-day shift that he works, located above 7-thousand feet. He says it is his job to keep up with any fires he spots. He watches any changes in color, size and direction. He says he takes note of what winds in the area are doing.

When Pease spots even the earliest signs of smoke or fire, he then radios dispatch to give critical information. He says he remembers tracking the 175-thousand acre Chips Fire and many others.

Pease says because he is above the terrain, he considers himself the central lookout. He describes himself as a human early warning system. He laments he is one of only a few remaining U.S. Forest Service lookouts in the state. Pease is passionate about his work. So much so that he has even written a book detailing his career as a lookout. At one time he says there were more than two dozen such staffed towers; now there are fewer than ten.

Pease says he sees the value in using technology in fighting fires but also says the old-school techniques; fire lookout towers, should not be dismissed. In neighboring Butte County, Cal Fire oversees five lookout towers, but none are staffed. Battalion Chief Mike Waters says the agency covers many remote areas and says cameras gives fire crews additional options.

He likens it to more ‘eyes’ keeping watch and at minimal expense. He says cameras offer a 24-hour a day view and allow Cal Fire members the ability to pinpoint the exact location of a fire more quickly and able to send resources to the right locations.

Pease believes with so many mountains and ravines to keep watch of, that cameras are unable to capture activity quickly and efficiently. Action News Now asked both Pease and Chief Waters, with California’s increasingly ferocious and deadline wildfires, is there a place for both?

Chief Water says the two offer different options and that cameras are not a replacement, but rather an enhancement.
Pease says he believes both are needed. He says based on his experience, he believes fires will continue to burn and no matter how many cameras, airplanes or trucks are in place to combat fires, it is early detection which will help save lives.

Pease says his goal is to educate the public and lawmakers about the role of fire tower lookouts, in hopes resources will once again be devoted to the ‘human’ detectors.

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