|Dolores Star: Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Technology can't replace human factor at fire lookout towersBy TJ Holmes
Dolores Star Editor
After lookouts spot a fire and relay the information, it's up to them to watch weather and fire conditions, ensure firefighter safety and relay information if needed.
Zinn performs basic maintenance on the tower each season and has added some improvements.
"We pick improvement projects every year," she said.
A solar-powered pump delivers water from the 300-gallon cistern at the tower's base to the sink in the lookout with the turn of the faucet. The sun also powers a small refrigerator. Zinn maintains a small garden just steps from the base of the tower, where she grows lettuces, chard, kale and turnip greens. The cistern provides water that will last almost all season, and the garden provides her with fresh greens all summer, she said.
In addition to Benchmark, Zinn has served as a lookout at Glacier and Mesa Verde national parks, in Dinosaur National Monument and on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona.
"This is a really nice tower, really well built," she said. "It nudges a little at about 35 miles per hour, but it's pretty sturdy."
Zinn credited Donohue and former Fire Management Officer Kevin Joseph with support of Benchmark and the role the tower and its lookouts play, even in these days of technology.
"If there's no support, no one batting for you, it can be tough," she said.
"She's my eyes," Donohue said. "We rely on her knowledge of the terrain."
There were once about 8,000 lookout towers in the United States, Kellogg said. There are now about 2,000. Aircraft surveillance has replaced lookouts in fire towers in many cases, but that comes at a high price. Human lookouts know their areas and can provide detailed information about an area; experienced lookouts like Zinn are priceless, according to Donohue.
"We tend to develop a sixth sense for seeing smoke," Zinn said.
To help her volunteers get the lay of the land, Zinn developed the habit of sketching a "scene area profile" for each lookout tower she has staffed. Benchmark is oriented so its walls face cardinal points based on true north. The map disk is an Osbourne firefinder, first made in the 1930s. Using the azimuth ring, sights and inset map, Zinn can make a precise definition of a fire's location.
Donohue decides what to do about information relayed by lookouts after smoke is spotted.
"We have an obligation to manage natural fires, and having (Zinn) up here means we have eyes on a fire 24 hours - all the time," Donohue said. "She'll call and give us updates. She really is our eyes."
In addition to lookouts' duties of ensuring firefighter safety and fire detection, their presence and the information they provide allows the Forest Service to make decisions and prioritize responses to multiple fires.
"We can pick the fires to go to first," he said. "We trust her. She tells us what's going on."
Close to settled areas, firefighters are in suppression mode, but fires in more distant, remote areas might just be monitored by the lookouts, he said.
Lookouts - at least at Benchmark - also provide a morning weather report.
"It's tradition," Donohue said. "If it's 80 degrees and 10 percent humidity in the morning, and you know where she is, you know the rest of the country is cooking."
"(Lookouts) are disappearing with the modern stuff, but a lot of the big, northern forests keep them," he said. "They can provide so much more information. It allows us to make an evaluation whether to manage for resource benefits or suppress it."
Zinn hikes a lot and does birding for various organizations during her seasons at the tower. "I'm never bored."
"Most people would go crazy in short order," she said. "You can have weeks or even months where nothing happens, but you have to stay alert. Then suddenly something happens and you have to switch gears.
"(The job) seems to appeal to a small subset of people. The reality is most people are not suited to this."
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