She keeps the forest safe

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat September 14, 2012 01:40 pm

Union Democrat Pam Lane stands inside the Smith Peak lookout tower. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, copyright 2012
 From inside a 30-foot tower at 3,877 feet in elevation, Pam Lane keeps a watchful eye for potentially catastrophic wildfires in the forested foothills of the Stanislaus National Forest.

The 53-year-old Coulterville resident has been stationed at the Smith Peak fire lookout tower, situated in the Groveland Ranger District, for the past 12 years and says she has no plans to leave her post anytime soon, despite a national trend suggesting that technology and shifting suppression efforts are edging out the longstanding form of fire detection.

 

“I will not be retiring until this job is obsolete or I can no longer walk up those steps,” Lane said.

Lane began her Forest Service career as a computer operations specialist but eventually got into firefighting. After being sidelined by a neck injury in 1999, she took the job as a fire lookout at the tower.

The cab of the tower is a 14-by-14-foot room featuring a kitchen with an oven and refrigerator and an old TV that receives some basic 

network channels, but few other amenities. A port-a-potty cleaned once a week sits at the base of the tower.

Inside the tower, there’s also a special chair with glass insulators on the legs that Lane must sit in during lightning storms. She said she’s had to sit in the chair sometimes up to five hours, and once experienced a direct hit to the tower.

“You hear a boom, see a flash and feel the tower shake,” Lane said. “It’s like multiple lights coming through the windows all at once.”

But it’s not always an adventure working in the tower five days a week from around May to October.

A typical eight-hour shift involves scanning the area with binoculars every 15 minutes for columns of smoke. She pinpoints the location of a fire using maps, as well as her own knowledge of the terrain, and relays that information to Forest Service dispatchers via radio.

“It helps that I’ve hiked this area, so I can give the fire engines an idea of where the smoke is coming from,” Lane said.

When there are no fires, she simply enjoys the peace, quiet and independence that comes with being in the tower, but said she also has passed the time by working on various maintenance projects, sewing or repainting Forest Service signs that need a touch up.

“Everyone I met who liked it seems to be a little artistic,” Lane said of the others who have staffed the tower over the years, such as one former lookout who spent down time leather crafting.

Smith Peak, located just two miles from the Groveland Ranger Station, is one of the three fire lookout towers open this summer in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The tower was first used as a fire lookout in 1910 before it was declared an administrative site in the 1930s. A metal tower replaced the wooden administrative building in 1952, but was destroyed in the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire. It was rebuilt the next year.

Today, Smith Peak is one of two lookouts in the Groveland Ranger District staffed each summer. The district’s other operational fire lookout is the Pilot Peak tower about 10 miles southeast of Groveland at 6,000 feet.

The Mount Elizabeth tower, only a few miles outside of Twain Harte in the Mi-Wok Ranger District, is the only other lookout staffed in the Stanislaus National Forest this fire season, according to Lane.

There used to be 24 fully-staffed towers throughout the forest, but most were shuttered or demolished long ago as other methods of fire detection became more prevalent, according to the Forest Service.

The increased use of airplanes and helicopters, a growing number of visitors in the forests using cell phones to report fires, and the implementation of “let-burn” policies in many wilderness areas have all contributed to the phasing out of fire lookouts, according to the Buck Rock Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting the preservation of the historic structures.

There used to be more than 8,000 fire lookouts in the United States, with more than 600 in California, according to the foundation. Many of those lookouts were built in the 1930s by labor work forces like the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era program.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association, which collects data and research about fire lookouts around the country, says there are only about 50 towers still staffed in California and fewer than 1,000 nationwide.

Despite the steady shift toward other forms of fire detection, Lane said she doesn’t think some of the new technology can make up for the skill and knowledge of experienced lookouts.

“We know the areas we work in and can give a better description, especially those of us that are there year after year,” she said.