By JOHN STANLEY
The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX (AP) - Her office is the size of a king-size bed.
And it's 45 feet in the air.
If Donna Ashworth is lucky, she'll have work for five months of
the year, earning an hourly wage not much more than that of an
urban burger flipper.
Over the years Ashworth has felt her workspace sway from
earthquakes and has had lightning punch a hole in her roof. She's
come face to face with a bear and sometimes goes a week without
seeing another person.
Ashworth is a fire-tower lookout.
And she wouldn't trade her job for anything.
"I live in the sky. I live with the weather and the trees and
the wildlife, from ladybugs to elk," she says from a tower a few
miles southwest of Flagstaff, where she has worked for 21 years.
"I have looked down on rainbows and seen them color the trees
beyond - red, blue and yellow. And it's a job I can do in my
slippers."
Ashworth is one of about six dozen full-time fire lookouts in
Arizona, staffing about 70 towers. Most live in cabins at the base
of their towers, others drive to work in the morning and go home at
night, like any urban commuter. They generally work eight-hour
shifts, unless fires keep them watching longer. All are temporary
employees, working through Arizona's fire season, generally from
mid-May through mid-September, although the season varies from
region to region.
So far this year, wildfires have burned tens of thousands of
acres in Arizona. The biggest single loss, almost 85,000 acres, was
to the "Aspen" fire that roared to life last month and raged over
Mount Lemmon, destroying more than 300 homes.
"(Fire lookouts) without a doubt serve as our front line of
defense against forest fires," says Joe Bill, president of a
Scottsdale biotech firm, who profiled 18 lookouts in his book
Climbing the Ladder Less Traveled (Mountain Forest Publishing,
2002, $12.95). Despite the increased use of surveillance aircraft,
lookouts remain the primary source of quickly spotting and
pinpointing fires.
When there's a fire going, "we feel like we're saving the
day," says Shirley Payne, who staffs a tower on the Mogollon Rim.
"To like what you're doing and feel like you're making a
difference - what more could you want in a job?"
Because Payne's tower is close to a well-traveled forest road,
she gets more visitors than most lookouts; diplomacy is part of her
job. She greets visitors (who are limited to 10-minute stays) and
hands out bags of pencils, shoelaces, Smokey Bear stickers and
other goodies to children. She answers the same questions, over and
over: Doesn't she get lonely? Bored? Scared?
No.
Then comes the big question: Why would anyone want to work this
job?
Payne ticks off the reasons: the view. Lightning. Solitude. Time
to read or work on her quilts.
"Think of all I don't have to deal with," she says. "Thank
God I'm not inside an office building."
To Payne's list, Ashworth adds freedom, privacy and peace. She
scoffs at the idea of being lonely.
"It's a myth that lookouts are pining for company," she says.
"(Besides), I'm in touch with 300 people on the radio."
Job requirements include at least a high school education, the
physical fitness to climb the towers (and hike - sometimes miles -
to remote locations), the skills to work the fire finder and radio,
and the visual acuity to see smoke and report the position
accurately.
Much of the job is routine. First thing every morning, Payne
climbs the tower for a quick look around. If, like most mornings,
there is nothing to report, she'll descend and make breakfast in
her cabin, then go for a walk with her dog, Louie.
Shortly before 8 a.m., she goes "in service," signing on the
radio, filling out a log book with weather conditions and anything
of interest, and radios in the local wind speed, direction and
precipitation to her dispatcher in Flagstaff.
Then she settles in for the morning, reading, quilting, relaying
messages, greeting visitors, all the while keeping one eye on the
carpet of forest that spreads for miles around her. She keeps a
radio with her at all times, even during lunch and bathroom breaks.
Sometimes she'll go a week without seeing smoke; once, three
summers ago, she spotted 18 fires in one day.
But the life of a lookout isn't for everyone.
"It requires a person who can stand to be by themselves for
hours or days on end. And a lot of people just can't do that,"
says Bob Dyson, public information officer for Apache-Sitgreaves
National Forest.
Lookouts range in age from 20 to almost 80. Most last only two
or three years, Dyson says, although a few seem to hang on forever.
Many lookouts use the time to practice their musical skills.
Ashworth tells of one who built a zither and another who had an
electric piano carried up to her lookout.
Ashworth puts her time in the tower to good use. She has written
a history of Woody Mountain and two historical novels. She is
working on her fourth book.
"Everybody who stays any time at all (in this job) is probably
happier by themselves than with a crowd," she says.
While high-tech advances have replaced many traditional lookout
positions like lighthouse keepers, officials don't expect
technology to completely replace humans in the near future.
"I don't know what kind of technology could replace human eyes
and human intelligence or could spot smoke and tell from the color
what it is doing. Lookouts do a lot of interpreting," says Karen
Malis-Clark, public information officer for Coconino National
Forest.
"And it would be a sad day if there was ever any sort of robot
that replaced lookouts. They're part of the forest tradition, a
romantic kind of job - the solitary lookout."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)