ME.very 10 minutes when your phone alarm rings, Rory Hewitt carefully examines the horizon. Perched atop the eastern peak of Mount Tamalpais, one of the highest points in the San Francisco Bay area, it observes the towers of the city that flash in the distance, the fog curling and sliding over the bay, and Marin County stretching more than 2,571 feet below it. To the south, the ancient redwoods of Muir Woods, a blanket of green, stretch to the sea, and to the northwest, the yellowing slopes appear to cut through the canopy, bleeding into Sonoma County.
Satisfied after rounding a walkway and looking in every direction, Hewitt returns inside the small square structure built directly on top of the peak where it serves as a Marin County fire lookout. For now, there were no signs of smoke amid the wispy clouds and afternoon haze.
“A boring day is a good day,” Hewitt says with a smile.
Hewitt He has spent the past six summers volunteering his time to keep an eye on the forest and the coastal towns below. Stationed in the Gardner Tower, he and dozens of other volunteers play an essential role in the region’s firefighting strategy, guarding against rapidly spreading flames in the same way that the people atop this peak do. have been doing it for over a century.
There are only a few hundred surveillance programs left in the U.S. And, even amid advances in fire detection technology, they are a crucial tool in fighting the growing number of wildfires that ignite each year across West.
“Since the watershed is so remote and out of range of cells, even as of late, they help us get the fire started earlier,” said Todd Overshiner, captain of the Marin County Fire Department. “In the initial attack portion of the fire, when we see the start of the fire for the first time, having lookouts is still a very important program.”
The Gardner Tower was completed in 1936 with native stone quarried from the mountain on which it stands. Although the cities below grew and changed, the viewpoint remained almost exactly the same. Many of the tools used to detect and identify ignitions in forests and drying chaparral also remain the same as those used by early watchers. The interior is outfitted for overnight stays, with a small bed and a compact kitchen stocked with cookware left behind by those who were once stationed there long-term, but now most shifts end at night.
There are some modern conveniences: radio, wifi, some cameras, but the most important equipment is a kind of alidade He called the Osborne Firefinder that was designed in the early 20th century.. The surveying tool It can accurately signal a fire, provides an accurate reading of the distance a fire burns, and requires no power to operate.
Hewitt has detected four fires as a lookout, all small. A colleague sent to Dickson, The second viewpoint of Marin, at the top of Barnabe Mountain, once helped stop a large fire that roared over the slopes of Lagunitas by quickly catching it, he says.
Volunteers in the watchtowers work between five and ten shifts per season, which in Marín lasts from mid-May to November. Hewitt, who works full time in the software industry, works remotely from the lookout during his weekday shifts.
He was inspired to sign up after watching an online video of the experience by lookout Gary Yost that captured the quiet splendor, an added bonus of the job.
Volunteers look for any sign of fire. Vehicle and structure fires often occur within cities, but the real danger lies in the vegetation and dehydrated slopes of the northwest, where fires could spread rapidly without early detection. There are also concerns for those who live in the houses hidden on the slopes of the mountains, with only narrow, winding roads to allow escape in case something catches on fire.
“From here you won’t see fire, you will see smoke,” says Hewitt. “Maybe just a little puff behind a ridge.”
If they see something, the watchmen relay as much detail as possible to the firefighters on the ground, including where the smoke is and what it looks like. It is black? Gray? Wispy? Wavy? Every detail makes a difference, and the volunteer team has been trained to have a keen eye. In an environment where fog spreads along the treetops and clouds rise low in the sky, smoke can be surprisingly difficult to detect.
“When you’ve done it for a while, you know how things are and how they should look,” Hewitt He says. “So you’re not looking, you’re just looking.”
Hewitt searches for smoke in the same way that lookouts have done for the last hundred years. Their numbers have dwindled over the decades, replaced by high-tech satellites and cameras, and many of the mountaintop stations have deteriorated. Some have been consumed by the fires they once served to detect and were never rebuilt. Others have been repurposed as a vacation rental.
But the old way of doing things still serves a purpose, especially as wildfires get worse every year in the West. Most lookouts in the US are volunteers, but some get paid, including Philip Connors, who quit his job as an editor at the Wall Street Journal decades ago and took up the life of a lookout in New Mexico, working for the US Forest Service.
“Techno-fetishists always dream of replacing us [but] we can do things for firefighters on the ground that a camera attached to a drone just can’t, ”Connors told The Guardian in 2016. there. Like Connors, many lookouts commit to the job for years, learning the nuances of the landscape that help them stay even more attuned to issues than new advances in technology.
“We still haven’t found any technology that can cover what the human eye can cover,” says Christopher Rivera, director of the Wildfire Watch Association serving and organizing in Northern California. “Yes, it is eye strain and time consuming, ”he adds. “But there is nothing else that can cover what the human eye can see. That is the reason why human lookouts are still in service today. “
The Wildland Fire Watchers Association, an organization founded in the 1990s that now has branches across the country and around the world, has fought to preserve the lookouts’ legacy and their role in fighting fires.
Rivera, a retired police officer, says there is a great need for lookouts, but acknowledges that it has been a battle to keep them going. It is working to increase the number of fire towers and those willing to watch from them.
“There are so many people from all walks of life who want to do something and we have not taken advantage of that resource in our communities,” he says.
Hewitt has come to appreciate the stillness at the top of the mountain., even as hikers climb the rocks below the lookout and the treetops sway in the Bay Area breeze. Outside the lookout, turkey vultures glide over the treetops in search of their midday meal, and hikers roam the rocks to marvel at the view. Hewitt has seen wildlife, from bobcats to rattlesnakes, undisturbed in their own habitats. Pour water into shallow wells in the rocks at the top for the butterflies, which are abundant there in the summer months.
Sometimes, Hewitt says, the night passes and the moon shines through the wraparound windows like a spotlight.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, noting that the work feels important and meaningful. “Yes, I could have volunteered to pick up trash on the side of the road,” he adds. “But instead, I volunteered to do this. It’s good for the people and it’s good for Marin. “