Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On the Lookout

I didn't do any wandering to speak of this spring. I usually stick fairly close to home during fire season, since there may not be much time to evacuate critters and valuables if a wildfire threatens the neighborhood. This season, I had a special opportunity to stay in one place and watch the world around me.

I volunteer for the USFS at our local District Office. I heard that they had no plans to staff any fire lookouts this season, even though two lookouts are still fully equipped. So, I talked to the Fire Prevention Officer and volunteered my services as a fire lookout. It's something that has been on my bucket list, and here was a perfect opportunity. I then convinced a friend and fellow volunteer to join me in this endeavor so the lookout could be staffed almost every day. The FPO and Fire Management Officer decided that we should staff the lookout closest to the urban interface (such as it is here), which happens to be a fifteen minute drive from my home. So, I didn't have to camp at James Ridge Lookout. I commuted.

James Ridge Lookout is a 7 foot by 7 foot Aermotor LX-24 cab on a 62 foot tower. It was first erected near the Mayhill Ranger Station in 1935, but was relocated to James Ridge in 1967. It has a view of the northern part of Sacramento Ranger District and the southern part of the Mescalero Indian Reservation.

Inside are the usual tools: an Osborne Fire Finder, a radio to send in my weather and fire reports, binoculars, weather instruments, maps etc.

The north window of the lookout had a bullet hole in it. A lot of splinters of glass had to be cleaned up from the cab.  The bullet then passed into the ceiling, but didn't exit - at least we think it didn't because it never leaked during rain. It took a while, but by the end of fire season the pane was replaced. The first replacement shattered when they tried carrying it up the tower stairs unprotected. The second time, it came up in a protective box.

After only a few days in the lookout we had our first fire. It was down on the southwest end of the district, far from James Ridge. I heard chatter on the radio for about a half hour before I could see smoke rise over Pumphouse Ridge. It was named the Benson fire, which was a misnomer, because it was on Joplin Ridge and nowhere near Benson Ridge. It was human caused - an unattended campfire.  It turned out to be the largest fire of the season in our district, and was just shy of 100 acres in size. Really, we had a very light and lucky fire season!

About a month into fire season, four forest service green vehicles rolled up and parked at the lookout. I had no idea what was going on, although I had heard on the radio that someone was driving up to James Ridge. It turned out it was the Pike, Colorado Hotshots who were on fire detail in the area, and they were just out for a joyride and a view of the countryside from the lookout. Good guys.

In late May, we had a light rain with cool temperatures, and I got a photo of some waterdogs - patches of condensation that can be mistaken for smoke. Often after a rain there will be phone calls to 911 or the sheriff or the District Office from concerned folks seeing smoke that turns out to be water dogs. They dissipate differently than smoke, and to me, their edges look fractal, where smoke is more "puffy". It will dissipate, then recur. I've learned that you want to watch a suspected smoke for a few minutes to see if it "puffs" repeatedly.

Most days, the routine was quiet and regular. Open up and check in with Dispatch at 8 am. Collect weather data - rainfall amount (if any), wet and dry bulb temperatures, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and visibility (how clear the air is based on how far you can see). Radio in weather reports at 9 am and 1 pm. Scan for smokes every 15 minutes and catch up on reading in between scans or listen to baseball on internet radio (yes, being near the urban interface there was good cell signal). Watch birds and other forest critters. Watch the changing shadows on the landscape. Watch the aspen stands turn green. Be friendly to any visitors that show up. Clean the windows or the cab. Check out with dispatch at 5 pm and lock things up.

Wild turkey visiting the tower

Even though these days were pleasant and peaceful, there is no denying that I looked forward to sighting a smoke, just for the adrenaline rush. I just wanted the smoke to be small and stay small. And I did see a few before the season ended. One was very far away on the north end of the Mescalero Reservation. I was surprised I was the first to see it, and it had already grown to ten acres by the time I did. Eventually, the Black Forest fire grew to about 100 acres, but that was because the BIA crews managed the fire to get rid of some slash in the area, so let it grow in a controlled way.

Just before the summer monsoons hit in full force we had our most dangerous weather - thunderstorms with lightning, but little rain. On June 30, we had a "lightning bust" and about six small fires started on the district, all within a few hours of each other in late afternoon. I turned in two that were very close to James Ridge. They were between one and two miles away. All the fires stayed small, thanks to favorable weather, but there were crews scattered all over the district chasing down these small starts.

Here are the two starts near James Ridge. I could see the base of the Walker fire and watched it glow as it consumed brush well into twilight.

Not long after the lightning bust and one more nearby start caused by a landowner leaving a brush pile he was burning unattended, the monsoons started in earnest and soon the fire danger was low and fire season was over. By mid July we cleaned the lookout for the last time, covered the Fire Finder, powered down the electronics and said good bye to James Ridge Lookout. We've already been asked if we want to come back for next fire season.

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