Once a smoke is spotted, the observer has to make very sure it is a fire. The smoke could be from an industrial smokestack – or it could be dust kicked up behind a truck speeding along a gravel road. Back in the days of steam locomotives it might have come from the smoke-stacks of the train itself.
Watch: BC Lookout Man, ca 1960 [British Columbia Archives]
When 18-year old towerman Archie McDonald sighted his first smoke, he found he had to report it three times before the fire ranger was persuaded that Archie knew what he was talking about. Check out Where There's Smoke There's Fire for the rest of the story.
THE HANDS-ON TOOLS found in every fire lookout are a fire finder, map, binoculars, a telephone and/or a radio.
The fire finder, or alidade, is fitted over a map, to help the observer pinpoint the location of the fire. If two or three fire lookouts report bearings for the same fire, the fire can be located accurately at the point where the bearings intersect.
Binoculars are useful for scanning the horizon, although they are limited by their narrow field of vision. Most scanning is done with the naked eye.
The observer reports the fire by two-way radio or telephone. In the early days lookouts were equipped with telephones only. Radio replaced the telephone when it proved to be a more reliable form of communication. Today, lookouts are equipped with both telephone and radio.
Watch: Locating & Reporting Fire for a look at the procedures followed once fire is detected. Saskatchewan, 1960. [Saskatchewan Archives Board]