America’s Fire Spotters Aren’t Ready to Fade Away Just Yet

If, on a hot, dry day a fire should break out within a certain 300,000-acre patch of northwest Montana, in an expanse of backcountry between the crest of the Whitefish Range and the glacier-carved peaks that hug the Continental Divide, there’s a good chance Leif Haugen will be the first person on Earth to see it.

For the better part of an hour, he might be the only person.

Mr. Haugen has worked for more than half of his 52 years as a fire lookout, scanning the larch and pine wilderness from a one-room mountaintop cabin. Alone most of the time but for his thoughts, his mutt, Ollie, and the occasional crackle of voices on the radio, he is part of a nationwide band of professional watchers who, like lighthouse keepers, stand on solitary guard between civilization and nature’s uncaring whims.

More and more, he stands at another divide, too: between human jobs and automation. As land managers seek new tools to deal with the threat of catastrophic wildfires, which is rising in the West as the planet warms and Americans build more homes near overgrown forests and other vulnerable places, the days of lookouts might be numbered.

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, told lawmakers in March that the agency was moving away from humans in watchtowers. The future of fire detection, he said, is cameras. “We need to lean much further into the technology arena,” he said.

A spokesman, Scott Owen, declined to say whether the Forest Service had specific plans for shrinking its number of lookouts. Already, though, their ranks are down considerably from before World War II, when thousands of rangers were stationed across hilltops as frontline troopers in the young agency’s all-out war on fire.

Leif Haugen, Ollie and items around the lookout post. At bottom right, Mr. Haugen takes a bearing using an alidade.

Today the service staffs just 71 lookouts in Washington and Oregon; 59 in California; and 52 in Montana, northern Idaho and northwest Wyoming, Mr. Owen said. Nationwide, including lookouts run by other federal, state and local agencies, perhaps 300 are in service, according to Gary Weber, treasurer of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a preservation group. Of the others still standing, many are now vacation rentals.

And yet, as officials in northwest Montana will tell you, there are reasons the lookout isn’t ready to disappear into the history books. Not completely. Not yet.

For Mr. Haugen’s job is not merely to locate fires, though he says he can do this in a wider range of conditions than helicopters (which can’t hover safely in thunderstorms), more precisely in some cases than planes (which can’t easily maneuver in narrow valleys) and more accurately at times than satellites (which can mistake sun-warmed rocks for fires).

He also relays messages between dispatchers and firefighters in canyons where the mountains block radio and cell signals. He tracks local weather shifts that affect the way fires behave and move. And he serves as safety watch for crews on the ground, alerting them to blazes that could churn their way and planning escape routes. Fifty percent of his job, he said, takes place once a fire response is underway.

“A human on top of a mountain can provide so much more than a piece of technology,” said Jeremy Harker, the fire management officer for Glacier National Park, a stretch of which Mr. Haugen surveys from his perch in the neighboring Flathead National Forest.

August’s deadly blaze on Maui notwithstanding, this fire season so far has been the nation’s most subdued in a decade. Wet weather has dampened risks across much of California, though not in its northernmost forests, where large fires have raged in recent weeks. Alaska had its calmest season on record until lightning ignited a slew of blazes in late July. Fires have destroyed homes and prompted evacuations in Washington and Oregon.

Wildfires unfold across vast, difficult terrain, in fast-changing conditions and with a frightening amount of random chance. In places like Glacier, officials don’t just put them all out. They must decide, sometimes hour by hour, whether letting a fire burn might provide ecological benefits or whether it is threatening enough lives and property to justify putting firefighters at risk.

New technology aids in these decisions, said Andy Huntsberger, a district fire management officer in the Flathead. But “it doesn’t replace the human element,” he said. Since 1998, the number of staffed lookouts in Glacier and the Flathead has grown to 12 from five.

Nobody doubts that cameras are getting better at the basic mechanical task of spotting smoke. California has a network of more than 1,000 fire-monitoring cameras and sensor arrays, and it is augmenting them with artificial intelligence.

The Douglas Forest Protective Association, which handles firefighting on 1.6 million acres of private and government land in southwest Oregon, has replaced its eight staffed lookouts with a camera system developed by FireWeb, a company in South Africa. The agency now employs six people to monitor the feeds from 36 cameras between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily during fire season.

Scientists are getting better at monitoring wildfires from space, too, though satellites still have big limitations.

The main fire-observing orbiters used by NASA and the Forest Service get a look at the same location in the contiguous United States only a few times a day, and not always at a great angle. So even after a blaze is large enough to be detected, it might be three to 12 hours before a satellite sees it and the data is processed, said Louis Giglio, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland who works with NASA on satellite fire monitoring.

Weather satellites that sit above the same region of Earth can locate hot spots more speedily, but they can’t always distinguish a small blaze from, say, a hot rock. And they work better on open, brush-filled lands like Southern California’s than in dense forests like those in northwest Montana, where tree canopies can obscure a smoldering fire for days, said Ryan Leach, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, Mont.

Human lookouts, however, can see the smoke much sooner. “They can detect the fires quicker than the satellites and catch them when they’re smaller, less dangerous and easier to put out,” Mr. Leach said.

Canada, which has had a record-shattering wildfire season, is preparing to launch dedicated fire-monitoring satellites in 2029. Start-ups in Israel and Germany are building satellite-based early warning systems.

Yet spotting fires sooner might not be the biggest benefit of such projects, Dr. Giglio said. Instead, data from new orbiters could improve scientists’ models of how fires spread. This could help officials plan evacuations better, and help land managers conduct more thinning and intentional burning of dense forests. “I just feel like we’re neglecting the less-flashy stuff,” Dr. Giglio said.

Leif Haugen’s setup at Thoma Lookout is about as unflashy as it gets. The glaring exception (And how could it be otherwise?) is the view, a spellbinding panorama of the Crown of the Continent region.

His cabin, elevation 7,104 feet, or just under 2,200 meters, is off the grid and has no running water. There are windows on all sides, an alidade for measuring angles and well-thumbed copies of “Moby-Dick” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy.” Sometimes Mr. Haugen cooks burritos in a propane oven that, if it is on for more than a few minutes, makes the whole place smell like mouse urine.

“It takes a certain kind of person” to be a lookout, he said on a recent evening, sitting outside his cabin as the clouds dropped ghostly trails of virga over the valley. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ And they do it for a year and flame out.”

When did he realize he was the right kind of person? “My first season.”

Mr. Haugen collecting water near Thoma Lookout; the station's washroom; a warning from a familiar character; fresh coffee in the cabin.

Mr. Haugen grew up in suburban Minneapolis, and for someone who spends a lot of time on his own in the woods, he still has plenty of what he calls “Minnesota nice.” He generously shared his time, stories and coffee with a reporter and a photographer while also acknowledging, rather cheerfully, that he hoped no more visitors would show up once they left. (“No offense.”)

He spoke of the pride he took in supporting fire managers, firefighters and his fellow lookouts, whom he helps train in mapping, radio and safety skills. But he also relishes his job’s more selfish aspects: the solitude, the long walks on empty trails.

“You have an intimacy with the landscape that you acquire,” said Inez Love, 72, a retired teacher who volunteers as a lookout in the Flathead. Each summer, “I leave feeling like I’m leaving something dear.”

Mr. Haugen has worked as a lookout since 1994, but he is still a temporary, seasonal employee, with no benefits. He gets overtime, but not as much as firefighters. During the off-seasons, he works as a carpenter and homebuilder, earning four times as much per hour as he does as a lookout, and he puts those skills to use restoring old fire lookout posts.

It’s been two years since he built a house, though. City dwellers and remote workers flocked to Montana in the early days of the pandemic seeking big skies and open spaces, driving up home prices. Mr. Haugen was already feeling overworked, and the Covid boom gave him a good reason to quit.

Rising living costs are making it harder for the Forest Service to hire in the Flathead area, Mr. Huntsberger, the fire management officer, said. Five years ago, an opening for a firefighter or fire management job might receive 10 to 20 applicants, he said. Of late it’s more like two or three. Even one.

The combination is inauspicious, and it is appearing in other parts of the West as well: more houses in fire-prone places, not enough fire experts.

“The fire was here before us, and the fire will be here after us,” Mr. Huntsberger said. What’s new is all the development we have placed in fire’s way, and the need to protect it. “We want to do that,” he said. “But, you know, it creates challenges.”

Raymond Zhong is a climate reporter. He joined The Times in 2017 and was part of the team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in public service for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. More about Raymond Zhong

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