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Technology Replaces Fire Lookouts At The Forest Service


Our next story is about a shrinking collection of men and women who perch themselves on top of mountains every summer to watch and wait for smoke. For more than a hundred years, the Forest Service has relied on lookouts, whose job it is to spot wildfires before they get big. But they're increasingly being replaced by satellites, remote cameras, also drones. NPR's Nathan Rott spent a day with one lookout in southwest New Mexico to see what could be lost in a transition to technology.


NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The birds are first to rise on top of the mountain - chirping, singing and squawking well before the sun peeks over a distant ridge. But it's not long after that the lookout joins them, clambering up sets of steep, graded stairs back and forth, up and up to a trap door on the floor of a small windowed box 50 feet above the ground.

This is where Philip Connors spends his summer days, nested in a tower above the surrounding pines, a gold meadow below. The view from the tower - a panorama of mesas, mountains, deserts and valleys - is absolutely breathtaking.

PHILIP CONNORS: On the clearest day, you can see mountain ranges on the horizon that are over a hundred miles away from here.

ROTT: For perspective, that's like seeing the Philadelphia skyline from a tower in Manhattan.

CONNORS: There might be a better view in southern New Mexico. But...

ROTT: Yeah - good luck finding it. Connors has spent thousands of hours pondering this view. He's been a fire lookout here in the Gila National Forest for 17 years - watching, studying and thinking as mega fires and human activity increasingly shape the world around him.

CONNORS: It's a pretty peaceful place much of the time. But it's interesting how it toggles back and forth...


CONNORS: ...Between, like, serenity and violence.


CONNORS: Right now we're in the serenity mode.


ROTT: Radio chatter is a constant companion on the mountain. It squawks as much as the birds.


ROTT: Fire crews, the dispatch center, other lookouts - all are familiar voices. But on this day, there's a new voice on the radio uttering unfamiliar words.

UNIDENTIFIED DRONE OPERATOR: The LRZ is going hot. Unmanned 201 will be flying a (ph) mapping and reconnaissance missions over the fire.

ROTT: The radio's garbled and a bit hard to hear, but that was the operator of Unmanned 201, a drone that the U.S. Forest Service is doing a short-term experiment with, heading out for a reconnaissance flight. Connors tugs at his white beard and jots notes on a legal pad.

CONNORS: The LRZ is now hot, you know - the launch and recovery zone. These are literally phrases I've never copied down in 17 years until 48 hours ago. So yeah, the future is here apparently. And I'm watching it.

ROTT: Land managers in the Gila National Forest say that Connors' job isn't going anywhere - not in the near future. The Gila is one of the few remaining forests where many fire lookouts are still staffed. But the overall trend is clear. At one time, there were over 8,000 fire lookout towers spread across 49 states. About three-quarters of those have since been torn down. And today only a few hundred of those towers are still staffed, many by volunteers drawn to the history and the romance of a summer in the wild.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: One of the lonely jobs - being a lookout man - in many ways, it's not unlike being a lighthouse keeper - the isolation, the responsibility and the feeling of being close to nature and its elemental forces, fire and water

ROTT: Those elements attracted some of America's literary greats. Norman Maclean, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey - all worked as fire lookouts during the profession's heyday, working in towers like Connors'. And through their writing...

CONNORS: They all had an impact on how we experience the world.

ROTT: Connors follows in that tradition. His first book, about summer No. 8 as a fire lookout, won the National Outdoor Book Award. A teal typewriter sits beside a pair of binoculars in his watchtower.

CONNORS: It's a paid writing retreat with good views - you know? - one way of looking at.

ROTT: Outside, gray clouds have built up over the mountains to the north and east. Thin curtains of rain catch the midday sun and dance on the tower roof as thunder...


ROTT: ...Rumbles in the distance. Four turkeys peck at the ground below, and then Connors spots it.

CONNORS: See up on top of the ridge there?

ROTT: Even with him pointing, it's hard to see.

CONNORS: There's a little white smoke kind of putting a dent in the ridgetop.

ROTT: Just a really little light, yeah.

CONNORS: Yeah, that's a single tree struck by lightning.

ROTT: The fire is maybe 15 miles away, due north.

CONNORS: So let's dial it up here.

ROTT: Connors moves around a big shelf in the middle of the room and rotates a circular mapping tool called the Osborne FireFinder, lining up the smoke in what can best be described as a gun sight.

CONNORS: Shooting an azimuth, we call it.

ROTT: The idea is that a lookout can see what compass direction, to the degree, the fire is from their tower. Other lookouts on other peaks will try to do the same.

CONNORS: Jean (ph), I wonder if you can see a smoke I'm looking at a couple of miles south of Reed's Peak. My azimuth is 338 degrees.

JEAN: I copy. Let me try with the binoculars.

ROTT: Using their different views, the lookouts triangulate the location of the fire using pieces of string on a weather-stained map. And a bit later, Connors calls it in.

CONNORS: Silver City Dispatch, smoke report.

ROTT: This is how fire lookouts have been spotting and reporting fires for more than a century. Firefinders, like the one Connors just used, first went into service a few years after the sinking of the Titanic. With the many advancements in technology since - satellites, infrared cameras, drones like the kind flying over the Gila National Forest now - Connors says, many people just assume he's obsolete. And in some ways, he says, they're right.

CONNORS: You know, for one thing, I can't hover over that fire. So it's got me beat there.

ROTT: But there are things Connors can do that a drone can't. He can serve as a relay for fire crews trying to communicate in the Gila's rugged terrain. He can watch a fire burn for hours and days. But perhaps more importantly, he can communicate to the rest of us what fire feels like, what climate change looks like, what wilderness sounds like - in the way we humans do.

CONNORS: We make narratives out of experiences. We turn it into stories. You can have all the datapoints in the world from drones, helicopters, airplanes, what have you. You still need a human intelligence to make a narrative out of it that is understandable to people outside of the immediate experience.

ROTT: And that, he says, is not going to change.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.