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The Eye In The Sky

Lars Benson, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry forest officer, explained what a day in the life of a fire lookout tower observer is really like. Pictured behind Benson are both the Athabasca lookout tower north west of Hinton and the cabin where an observer spends six months of the year. Masha Scheele Photo

Masha Scheele
reporter@hintonvoice.ca


A look at the  life of a fire tower observer

From May until September, staff from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) sat at the top of the Athabasca fire lookout tower scanning the horizon for smoke.

During high and extreme fire hazard periods, that individual spends six hours straight at the top of the tower.

“There are no washrooms up there. There is nothing here, sometimes there is a pulley line where you can pull your food or lunches up and then you don’t have to carry it,” said Lars Benson, AAF forest officer.

Based on the fire hazard at any time and the current conditions, the tower operator may spend less time in the tower. Whenever it is raining, or it is damp and wet with frost in the morning, the operator may be able to go up and come down multiple times throughout the day.

“In a day in the life, they start off with weather. Right in the morning, 8:15 am they have it in,” Benson said.

They record the weather twice every day, and the rest of the time is spent looking for fires from the tower. The weather station is set up at each tower across the province in the exact same way for consistency. The station collects data including temperature and humidity.

“Everything about how the stand is, how it’s faced, the height of it, is all super specific down to a scientific exact. That way it’s consistent across the entire province. It’s set up at a specific height off the ground, has to be away from trees, the screen has to point a certain way,” Benson explained.

At the top of the tower, there’s a scope, a topographical map, and a 360 degree view that stretches about 30 kilometres in each direction.

At the end of the Athabasca tower’s line of sight, another tower picks up, making sure that no areas are missed.

“Some areas are hard, you can’t see right down this hill so we have blind spots,” Benson said.

On certain weekends with more activity in certain areas like the Brule sand dunes or nearby campgrounds, AAF will send out flights to cover off the blindspots of each tower. Due to the Athabasca lookout tower being so close to Hinton, it opens up earlier in the year and has someone operating it for a longer time period.

Masha Scheele Photo
View from the Athabasca Lookout Cabin

Towers are spread along the Eastern slopes and cover most of Alberta’s forest areas.

“Basically the entire province is covered by towers,” Benson said.

The province announced back in 2019 that between 15 and 30 of the province’s 127 wildfire lookout towers would no longer be staffed as part of the budget reduction.

Three towers within the Edson Forest Area, where Hinton is located, didn’t open this year.There used to be 14 towers within the Edson forest area, which is now reduced to 11. In the Edson Forest Area that means the tower near Adams Creek, Moberly, and Obed didn’t open, which are located northwest and northeast of the Athabasca lookout tower.

“It was a number of different factors, how much overlap is in place, how many historical fires were detected. A mix of different factors,” explained Pat Scobie, AAF wildfire technologist.

The majority of fires are called in through 310 FIRE, while only a small number are detected by lookout towers, said Benson.

This year, 53 fires were counted in the Edson forest area, and only 11 were called in by towers, while the rest was 310 FIRE. Six of those fires were caused by lightning, while the rest were human caused.

Benson added that the normal number of fires within the Edson Forest Area in a year ranges from 130 to 180, including abandoned smoldering campfires to massive wildfires.

Last year was very rainy and this year has been an odd year due to the pandemic, explained Caroline Charbonneau, forest information officer in the area.

“Last year, there was around 1,400 hectares [burned] and this year it’s 3.5 hectares,” she said.

A fire restriction, fire ban, and an ATV ban early in the season this year shut down any fire activity and likely prevented a lot of human caused fires.

Education to the public may have had a factor in the low number of fires and hectares burned this year. 

“They’re seeing all these fires from previous years and results coming out like, ‘oh this was human caused’,” said Benson.

Any communication towers are protected in case of a major wildfire through FireSmart.

FireSmart reduces the likelihood of large uncontrollable wildfires in forests near communities and infrastructure.

“We want to cut down the amount of fuel that’s accessible for a fire coming in. That would allow you the opportunity for suppression activities,” explained Scobie.

The area around the Athabasca lookout tower is pruned back to prevent fire from burning up into the trees.

Scobie added that prior to the FireSmart activities in the area, ladder fuel filled the side of the hill. Ladder fuels refer to live or dead vegetation that allows a fire to climb up from the landscape or forest floor into the tree canopy, like grasses, shrubs, or branches.

“It will move faster along the tops of the trees in a crown fire, it’s just decreasing the intensity around your value, in this case the tower,” Scobie said.

The first lookout at the Athabasca site started in 1917 with a tiny three by four metre cabin.

Benson added that the operator of a lookout back then used to trap, catch, and grow their own food, whereas now, groceries are delivered.

Some towers, like the Athabasca, have the luxury of being very close to towns and their amenities, while others are far away from anything or anyone.

In 1953, the first wooden tower with a new fibreglass cupula was constructed, which was replaced by a steel tower in 1969. The current Athabasca lookout tower was constructed in 2012. Most cabins at the lookout sites have a common space, a kitchen, a living room or dining area, a bedroom, and an office with a radio. The Athabasca site also has power and a phone, but most towers run on generators. 

None of the towers have running water, and potable water has to be brought in. Water is collected off the roof and into a storage tank for wash water, which is piped into the house.

“When I started my career, that was the drinking water too, it was the runoff off the roof. It was filtered out with a piece of cloth to get all the little shingle pieces out,” Scobie added.

Tower observers apply and are interviewed before they train for one week to operate the tower. Go to wildfire.alberta.ca/recruitment/lookout-observer.aspx for more information.