Dolores Star: Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Technology can't replace human factor at fire lookout towers

By TJ Holmes
Dolores Star Editor
Barb Zinn
Benchmark Lookout's primary fire spotter, Barb Zinn, demonstrates the tower's map disk during a tour last Tuesday with the Dolores District's acting fire management officer, Dale Donohue.
Barb Zinn, primary lookout at Benchmark fire tower, shows how she can pinpoint locations of fires on a drop-down map last Tuesday.

Sondra Kellogg, director of the Colorado chapter of the National Historic Lookout Register, presents a certificate and plaque to be fixed to Benchmark Lookout ot Dolores District Ranger Steve Beverlin on Tuesday at the Dolores Public Lands Office. Benchmark's primary lookout, Barb Zinn, is at right.
Barb Zinn waters her garden last Tuesday after a tour of Benchmark Lookout.

BENCHMARK LOOKOUT - Four stories above a hilltop at the end of a four-wheel drive track in the Glade sits a glass box. It measures 14.5 feet by 14.5 feet and contains a bed, a sink and a refrigerator - both powered by the sun - books, maps and hand-drawn sketches of the views out each window, radio, cell phone and charger, map disk.

Barb Zinn is the primary lookout at Benchmark, now in her seventh year at the tower. Though she is the primary lookout, she's not alone. A dedicated group of volunteers help Zinn staff the tower to keep watch over the landscape and the firefighters called to manage wildfires.

Benchmark Lookout was built in 1970 to replace the older tower on Glade Mountain, originally built in 1941 by the Forest Service, Zinn said last week during a tour to the tower with acting Dolores District Fire Management Officer Dale Donohue, Sondra Kellogg with the Forest Fire Lookout Association and lookout for Mesa Verde National Park's Park Point Lookout, Dani Long. Kellogg was in Southwest Colorado to dedicate both Benchmark and Park Point to the National Historic Fire Lookout Register.

From its perch at 9,265 feet, Benchmark has a 100-plus-mile view on a clear day, Zinn said.

"This is the kind of job you love or it's the kind of job you hate," she said. "It either suits you or not."

Volunteers go through specific training, and above all, they have to be people who can be trusted to relay good information.

"We set the standards," she said. "We train to that standard, and we expect that standard."

Lookouts are trained to do comprehensive scans every 15 minutes.

"Put it this way: If someone changes something in your living room, you know something's off," Zinn said. "When you're used to seeing a particular view, when something is different, you see it.

"But after a lightning storm, you're sitting there with the binoculars glued on."

They see visitors throughout the season, but it's pretty quiet until hunting season starts, and Zinn cautions that people can distract from the job, and entertaining visitors is at the lookout's discretion. Visitors also should follow typical summer precautions in the mountains and expect afternoon thunderstorms.

Contrary to what most people think, the primary job of Zinn and other lookouts is not fire detection. She emphasizes that her primary responsibility is to ensure firefighter safety.

"This is an era of catastrophic fires," Zinn said. "We're getting a lot of intense fire behavior. Firefighters can't see the weather coming in, and they can't see overall fire behavior - topography and trees can obscure parts of the fire from their view. I can see that; I'm kind of their eyes."

The farthest point that can be seen from Benchmark Lookout is Navajo Mountain, 120 miles away on the Arizona-Utah border near Lake Powell.

"You won't see that every day because of the air quality," she said.

Zinn has a degree in physics and worked toward a doctorate in atmospheric physics in New Mexico. She said she checks the grounding wires and lightning rods first thing every year when she gets back to the tower to ensure they are intact and undamaged.

"It's is very well protected from lightning strikes," she said.

The bed sits on a plastic pad, and the chair has glass caps on the legs. Most of the wildfires in this part of the country are lightning-caused, she said. The tower has not been struck, she said, but strikes have hit nearby.

Because this area gets "zillions" of lightning strikes, Zinn said, lookouts don't mark the location of each strike. Rather, they note the general geographic location and monitor the area because of the risk of "sleeper fires" caused by strikes that hit then smolder until the conditions are right: the temperature increases, the wind picks up, and a fire starts.

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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