Idaho Lookouts Keep Eyes Peeled for Trace of Smoke

July 20--Despite technology that seemingly moves at the speed of light, the old methods sometimes are still the best.

That's the way Gary Dutcher sees it. For the past 38 years, the 74-year-old has manned the lookout tower on Pilot Knob high above Newsome Creek and the South Fork of the Clearwater River, where he tracks lightning storms and keeps his eyes peeled for traces of smoke that signal the birth of a wildfire.

When he spots one, he works up a location, gathers data critical for firefighting officials and radios the information to a dispatch center at Grangeville.

"I hear we still get the majority of them," he said of the few functioning lookouts that are left. "Our big advantage is we are right here all the time."

The number of fire lookouts deployed across forests of the American West has shrunk dramatically over the past century. For example, at one point there were 148 lookouts on the Nez Perce National Forest alone. Today, the forest has just 21 working lookouts.

The eyes in the sky have largely been replaced by spotters deployed in airplanes that patrol forests during fire season. There are even some new experiments to see if remote-controlled cameras mounted on vacant lookout towers can be used by office workers to detect fires (see related story).

But many fire officials believe there is no replacing humans stationed on strategic pinnacles.

"Those ladies and gentlemen that are up there are a pretty integral part of our operation," said Bob Lippincott, the head fire official for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. "They are there for eight-hour or longer days with eyes on that piece of country. When we are flying air patrols, we will fly one patrol a day if there is not a lot going on, or do two a day when there is a lot going on.

"Those folks (lookouts) pick up a lot of fires that aircraft and (spotters) don't get to see because they haven't shown any smoke yet."

Spotting fires isn't always easy

Dutcher says lookouts are kind of a like the half-ax, half-pick implements still used by firefighting grunts to scratch, scrape and hack lines around fires -- primitive but effective.

"It's kind of like firefighting," he said. "They still use a Pulaski as the main tool and that has been around a long time."

Think of efforts to fight wildfires as a sport, and lookouts might be analogous to offensive and defensive football coaches who make calls from stadium skyboxes.

"I'm kind of old enough to think lookouts are part of the whole package," said Chris Gauthier, a recently retired assistant fire management officer for the Lochsa District who is helping his wife Kerry as she enters her second season as a fire lookout. "Wildland firefighting is a team sport. It takes a little bit of everything. Just like there is smoke jumpers and helitack and ground forces and managers and dispatchers, it takes all of them."

A lookout's primary job is to scan for smoke and report fires. Even with the breathtaking, panoramic views, spotting fires can be tricky. When fires are young, they often play a game of hide-and-seek with both lookouts and air patrols.

"Sometimes it will only smoke up once every 20 minutes or sometimes it looks like an old-time steam engine," Dutcher said.

When the trace of smoke is faint, speed is important.

"The first thing I do is get a sight on it -- bang -- because sometimes it doesn't last," Dutcher said. "And then I get to working up a legal (location) on it and I try to get it right the first time. There were some lookouts about 30 years ago, they wanted to be first and then they was calling back with an update. I don't like that."

An educated guessing game

Spotting smoke is only part of the work. It can be tougher to figure out where it is coming from. Lookouts use alidades, or fire finders -- a sighting device that helps determine directions or measure angles -- as well as maps and their own knowledge of the country to determine the exact location of a fire that might be 20 miles away and across several ridges.

Sometimes the whole picture isn't visible. They might see a finger or even a column of smoke rising out of a blind canyon or from behind a ridge. In such cases, Dutcher said it's a bit of an educated guessing game to determine where the fire is.

Dave Crousser, assistant fire management officer for the Salmon River District, said there is no one he trusts more than Dutcher.

"When Dutch tells us something, that is the way it is," he said. "If he tells you it's within 100 yards of that road, it's within 100 yards of that road. He don't miss."

Lookouts also provide a lot more information. They relay things like whether the fire is lightning- or human-caused, the kind of vegetation it is in, if there are any structures nearby, how it can be accessed by firefighters, whether it's burning at the bottom, middle or top of a slope, the aspect of the slope, wind speed and direction, and fire behavior -- whether it's burning hot or just creeping around.

"He is painting a picture for me," Crousser said. "He is telling me not only the location of the fire but what it is doing, what its potential is, are there any old harvest units around it, is it in a young stand of timber or an old stand of timber, is it a single tree, is it multiple trees. He is painting a picture for me over the radio."

Lookouts also provide a critical communication link in the backcountry where firefighters and others can't always rely on their radios to reach dispatch centers.

"Sometimes we get dead spots and we can't talk back to the fire dispatch center and (lookouts) will relay that information," said Kevin Chaffee, fire management officer for the Salmon River District.

And that service extends to other agency employees who work in the backcountry.

"In terms of safety, those folks are there not just for fire folks, but for recreation folks and trail folks and packers," Lippincott said. "It's really nice in the backcountry and wilderness, some of those areas we are working, to know that the lookout person is up there and can monitor and talk to those folks and get a hold of them in the middle of the night."

Riding out the storm

While spending the summer in your own cabin atop a mountain peak might sound idyllic, it's not for everybody.

"You have to be comfortable with yourself, that is the person you have to live with," Dutcher said. "It helps to have a dog so people don't think you are talking to yourself."

For the past 11 years, Lightning, a red heeler, has shared Pilot Knob Lookout with Dutcher. He said lookouts have to like the outdoors and nature and they have to be willing to sit in a small house when lightning is crashing all around.

The lookout is grounded and the legs of furniture are protected with glass insulators for extra protection. But Dutcher has a tough time sitting still during a good electrical storm.

"Even when it's hitting around here, I'm just too nosey," he said. "I'm up pacing the floor. As long as the floor is dry, I think you are plum safe. The lightning grounding system does what they call the birdcage effect. You are safe right in here. You step out that door and you are fair game."

The steps to Dutcher's Pilot Knob Lookout are relatively mild, but the same can't be said for others.

Kerry Gauthier is at Hemlock Butte Lookout near French Mountain Saddle. The tower stands 55 feet off the ground and offers expansive views of the North Fork of the Clearwater and Lochsa districts. Gauthier has to climb four flights to reach her lookout. The steps with narrow treads are more ladder than stairs and take some getting used to.

"It's getting easier," she said. "Today I can go down better -- not sideways anymore -- I can go straight down."

Being high off the ground does have some advantages. While flies buzz around the windows of Dutcher's abode on Pilot Knob, Gauthier says her lookout tends to be bug free.

She also gets fewer visitors than many lookouts.

"A lot of people don't come up," she said. "They come (to the base) but they don't come up the stairs."

Modern conveniences

The life of a lookout has changed some. For years, lookouts were connected to the outside world by crank telephones rather than radios. A major job of the lookout was to maintain phone lines that were prone to failure every time an old tree was blown over by the wind.

Radios made communication less labor-intensive and now cellphones are making it easier for lookouts to communicate with friends and family. Because they are on such high spots, it is often possible to get a cellphone signal even in remote locations.

Dutcher remembers being told by a cellphone technician that having a signal would helpful.

"I told him, 'Hey, one of the advantages of being up there is there ain't no damn phones up here.' "

But he was a quick convert. Before he was able to use a cellphone, he sent grocery orders and other messages to his wife via radio dispatchers who passed them along via telephone. He said it was like the children's game in which you pass a message down a line of people and it comes out completely different than it started.

"Well, it happened awful quick and they would have us fighting," he said. "They would misinterpret both sides of it, unintentionally of course. When we first got cellphones up here, I could talk to my wife and get the messages straight and that was a big advantage."

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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