Update, July 1, 2013: After this piece was published, the Yarnell Hills wildfire in Arizona killed 19 firefighters.
As wildfire season peaks this summer and Colorado recovers from a destructive 15,500-acre fire, U.S. Forest Service employees, stationed on remote mountaintops, will keep watch across the country. Lookouts like these men and women have served the Forest Service, state agencies, and private landowners for more than a century, and have developed a rich tradition of self-sufficiency and Americana.
But lookouts have increasingly been rendered useless by encroaching development, smoke-detecting pattern-recognition software, GPS, cellphones, widespread Internet access, and cameras. Mountains that once were far from civilization now have highways and residential developments nearby, and civilians can immediately call in a fire from their cellphones. Reconnaissance airplanes can fly over a fire and use GPS to pinpoint a position. And the Forest Service and state agencies are installing rotating cameras in lookout towers that send images back to their dispatch centers.
Over the last 30 to 40 years, the number of lookouts employed around the country has decreased steadily. Only 826 out of 2,552 lookout stations are staffed, according to a compilation by the Forest Fire Lookout Association. And about 6,225 lookout towers have been knocked down.
This trend is clearly cost-effective. Employees require pay (the lowest I’ve found is $8.53 per hour), and lookout stations need frequent maintenance. There are hosts of safety issues. Installing a camera, meanwhile, is a one-time cost with few recurring expenses and virtually no dangers involved.
In Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, Mount Ord will soon be home to a 355-degree rotating camera that sends a feed to a dispatch center in Phoenix, 50 miles southwest of the mountain. The camera will cost about $700 and should be installed by the end of this wildfire season, said Tonto deputy fire manager Helen Graham.
Graham declined to discuss specific staffing details, but Mount Ord lookout Robert Brownell, who has been a lookout in various locations around the country since 1994, said he expects to be out of a job. Cutting his position should make up for the cost of the camera in no more than a couple of weeks.
Those savings are the upside of this trend. The downside is the death of an American icon. Lookouts are more than government employees. They represent the independence that Americans want to see in themselves.
Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, described the 1930s as the first heyday of wildfire lookouts, as the New Deal employed young men as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. A significant portion of the CCC’s work focused on forestry, wildlife, and fighting wildfires, and this increased the number of lookouts employed by the Forest Service. But the occupation made its mark on American culture in the 1950s and ’60s, when literary figures including Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean worked as lookouts and drew inspiration from the seclusion of their mountains. Lookouts simultaneously reflect the quest to conquer nature that dominated American environmental policy in the first half of the 20th century, and the Buddhism-influenced sense of oneness with nature that inspired writers like Kerouac and Snyder.
Snyder reflected on the life of a lookout and its peaceful sense of seclusion in his poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout”:
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
Cameras may be able to spot fires, but they cannot love the mountains the way lookouts do. “I hate to see that go away,” said Dave Lorenz, president of the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Arizona chapter. “There’s some quaintness to it.”
But the quaintness and seclusion of being a lookout might be disappearing even without cameras. At Mount Ord, Brownell’s view is dissected by state highway 87, and he often hosts visitors who have hiked to his lookout tower. This expanding development is the biggest reason for the decline in number of lookouts, in Graham’s opinion.
Combine that development—roads, residential neighborhoods, etc.—with the now common use of cellphones, and many wildfires are called in before a lookout can even spot it. Graham and Brownell both said this is a common occurrence at Mount Ord. And cellphone reception is no problem in the area around the mountain, thanks to (ugly) towers placed at the peak. There are other lookouts in Arizona with a more classic, isolated experience, Brownell said. To the north, near the Mogollon Rim, lookouts aren’t bothered by as many visitors as he is, and it is harder to get cellphone reception.
This will be Tonto’s first camera, but other regions have done the same successfully. In Oregon, the state Department of Forestry has had cameras for several years, which spokesman Dennis Lee said has worked well. And whereas Mount Ord’s feed will have to be monitored by dispatch-center employees, Oregon uses ForestWatch, a system of cameras and pattern-recognition software that recognizes smoke and sends an alerts to employees’ computers when necessary.
ForestWatch cameras, which are made by a South African company called EnviroVision Solutions, send images back to a main dispatch center via Internet, fiber optic cable, satellite, or microwave link, depending on the area’s conditions. The system then uses algorithms based on the shape, color, and movement of smoke and compares the camera’s current image to previous ones in order to determine whether there is a fire. The system also has a geographic information system that allows dispatch-center employees to receive geographic coordinates, wind direction, and other variables by clicking with a mouse on a spot on the screen.
Oregon already has 28 sites with ForestWatch cameras. The whole system covers about 10 million acres and spotted 27 smokes in 2012, including five fires that were otherwise unknown.
Oregon’s system is pricier than the kind going up on Arizona’s Mount Ord. Depending on the features, a ForestWatch tower and the related software costs up to $20,000. But that still saves Oregon the continuing cost of employing a full-time lookout.
Despite technological advances, lookouts still hold a few advantages over cameras and civilians. For one, they know more about fire than an average person calling in. A lookout can more accurately pinpoint the location of a fire and sometimes even discern what kind of fuel is burning based on the color of the smoke, Argow said. And although they aren’t always the first to report a fire, they are the most reliable option because they are always on call.
For those reasons, Lorenz and Argow don’t believe lookouts will disappear entirely. Instead, they might serve another purpose. Argow compared the future of lookouts to that of lighthouse keepers: Although technology is making them less useful, they still serve an important role by helping people understand history. Lookouts could still be stationed in the years to come, but probably only on an unpaid, volunteer basis, says Argow. That would keep an American tradition alive, but still save money.
In 1976 author Norman Maclean reflected on the slow pace of the job and the self-sufficiency it required, recalling his time as a lookout in the summer of 1919. In the short story “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky,” he wrote, “It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It’s mostly soul.”
As most lookouts are replaced by cameras, software, and cellphones, America’s forests will still be under watchful eyes—but they’ll have lost that soul.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.