IT SEEMS LIKE A ROMANTIC LIFE, months at a time in the woods away from city noise, but not everyone is cut out to be a lookout observer.
Isolation is the most difficult aspect of the observer’s life – or paradoxically – the best part. It all depends on the person concerned. Frequently fire observers live alone and work alone from May to October. Check out Towerman's Lament for a light look at the down side of life inside a small, eight-sided room 100 feet above the ground.
Local settlers, trappers, or loggers were considered ideal candidates for the job. They were used to the country, and accustomed to being alone. Quiet, introverted people like lookout tower observer Billy Doucette, who enjoyed the months of solitude in the wilderness, were a natural fit.
Yet quite a variety of people have taken on the job and thrived – men and – women, young and old, introverted and sociable. In 1978, 27-year old Janet Propp worked as a tower observer in the Yukon and loved it. Read her story in A Woman on the Watch for Fires.
Listen: In Yukon fire spotter a fire observer says she finds her life anything but boring or lonely. [CBC Radio North, 1986. NWT Archives.]
Height – that is the fear of height – can also be a major difficulty for untried lookout observers.
In forested country, the tower observer has to climb straight up a vertical ladder every morning, and down every evening. The prospect of climbing a 30-metre (100-foot) ladder can strike fear into the boldest heart. So can one look at the ground below before descending.
The lookouts perched on mountain tops are battered by horrific winds and terrifying lightning storms. On a mountain top, the fire spotter has to sit out the storm. There is no place to hide.
Lookout Observers were key to the fire detection system in Canada for over 40 years. The full responsibility for finding fire and reporting it was placed squarely on the shoulders of a few people scattered across wilderness areas. As a rule they took their job very seriously, but they could see the funny side too, as Owen Barr recounts in his History of Forest Fire Fighting in Nova Scotia.
TODAY FIRE LOOKOUT observers continue to play a very important role in many parts of Canada.
They still deal with isolation and dizzying heights. They still have to be alert, observant, and conscientious, able to trust their own judgment when making a fire call, and to follow through until help gets there.
The B.C. Forest Protection Branch, currently operating about 100 fire lookout stations, says: