If, on a hot, dry day a fire broke out in a certain 300,000-acre section of northwestern Montana, in a vast backcountry between the top of the Whitefish Range and the peaks carved by glacier that hugs the Continental Divide, there’s a good chance Leif Haugen was 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 more than half of his 52 years as a fire lookout, surveying the larch and pine wilderness from a one-room mountaintop cabin. Often alone but for his thoughts, his mutt, Ollie, and the occasional crackle of voices on the radio, he is part of a national group of professional observers who, like the keepers of lighthouse, stands alone sentinel between civilization and indifferent nature. whims.
Increasingly, he also stands on another divide: between human jobs and automation. As land managers look for new tools to deal with the threat of catastrophic wildfires, which are rising in the West as the planet warms and Americans build more homes near forested areas and other vulnerable areas, the days of vigilance may be numbered.
The head of the US Forest Service, Randy Moore, told lawmakers in March the agency was moving away from the people in the watchtowers. The future of fire detection, he said, is cameras. “We have to rely more on the technology arena,” he said.
A spokesman, Scott Owen, declined to say whether the Forest Service has specific plans for reducing the number of its lookouts. However, their ranks have dropped significantly from before World War II, when thousands of rangers were stationed on hilltops as frontline troopers in the young agency’s all-out war.
Today, the service staffs only 71 lookouts in Washington and Oregon; 59 in California; and 52 in Montana, northern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, Mr. Owen said. Nationwide, including lookouts operated by other federal, state and local agencies, perhaps 300 are in service, according to Gary Weber, treasurer of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a conservation group. On the other hand, there are now many vacation rentals.
However, as officials in northwest Montana will tell you, there are reasons the lookout isn’t ready to disappear from the history books just yet. Not completely. Not yet.
For Mr. Haugen’s job isn’t just to find fires, although he says he can do it in a wider range of conditions than helicopters (which aren’t safe to fly in storms), more specifically in some cases than airplanes (which cannot easily maneuver through narrow valleys) and sometimes more accurately than satellites (which can mistake sun-heated rocks for fire).
He also relays messages between dispatchers and firefighters in canyons where mountains block radio and cell signals. He tracks local weather changes that affect the way fires act and move. And he acts as a safety watch for the crew on the ground, alerting them to fires that may be on their way and planning escape routes. Fifty percent of his work, he said, takes place when a fire response is underway.
“A person on top of a mountain can provide more than a piece of technology,” said Jeremy Harker, the fire management officer for Glacier National Park, a stretch where Mr. Haugen from his perch in the nearby Flathead National Forest.
Despite August’s deadly wildfires in Maui, this fire season has so far been the nation’s most contained in a decade. Wet weather has eased the dangers in much of California, though not in its northernmost forest, where large fires have raged in recent weeks. Alaska had its quietest weather on record until lightning struck in late July. Fires destroyed homes and prompted evacuations in Washington and Oregon.
Wildfires spread over vast, difficult terrain, in rapidly changing conditions and with an alarming amount of random chance. In places like Glacier, officials don’t just let everyone out. They must decide, sometimes hourly, whether allowing a fire to burn can provide an ecological benefit or whether it threatens enough life and property to justify putting firefighters at risk.
New technology can help with these decisions, said Andy Huntsberger, a Flathead district fire management officer. 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.
No one doubts that cameras are getting better at the basic mechanical task of smoke detection. California has a network of more than 1,000 fire-monitoring cameras and sensor arrays, and it’s augmenting them with artificial intelligence.
The Douglas Forest Protective Association, which oversees firefighting on 1.6 million acres of private and government land in southwestern Oregon, has replaced its eight staffed lookouts with a camera system developed by FireWeb, a South African company. . The agency now employs six people to monitor feeds from 36 cameras between 8 am and 9 pm every day during the fire season.
Scientists are getting better at tracking wildfires from space, though satellites still have major limitations.
The primary fire-observing orbiters used by NASA and the Forest Service look at the same location in the contiguous United States several times a day, and not always at a good angle. So even if the fire is big enough to detect, it could be three to 12 hours before a satellite can see it and process the data, said Louis Giglio, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland who works with NASA on satellite tracking. on fire.
Weather satellites that are above the same region of the Earth can find hot spots faster, but they can’t always distinguish a small fire from, for example, a hot rock. And they work better in open, brushy terrain like Southern California than in dense forests like in northwestern Montana, where tree canopies can obscure a smoldering fire inside. several days, said Ryan Leach, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, Mont. .
However, human lookouts can spot the smoke much earlier. “They can detect fires faster than satellites and catch them when they are smaller, less dangerous and easier to put out,” said Mr. Leach.
Canada, which has had so many fire seasons, is preparing to launch dedicated fire monitoring satellites in 2029. Start-ups in Israel and Germany are developing satellite-based early warning systems.
But detecting fires sooner may not be the biggest benefit of such projects, said Dr. Giglio. Instead, data from the new orbiters could improve scientists’ models of how the fire spread. This will help officials better plan evacuations, and help land managers conduct more thinning and deliberate burning of dense forests. “I feel like we’re neglecting things that aren’t so scary,” says Dr. Giglio.
Leif Haugen’s setup at Thoma Lookout barely blinks. The glaring exception (And how could it be otherwise?) is the landscape, a spectacular panorama of the Crown of the Continent region.
His cabin, at an elevation of 7,104 feet, or less than 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 Cormac McCarthy’s “Moby-Dick” and “Border Trilogy.” Sometimes Mr. Haugen cooks burritos in a propane oven that, if it’s left on for more than a few minutes, makes the whole place look like rat urine.
“It takes a certain kind of person” to be a lookout, he said on a recent night, sitting outside his cabin as the clouds dropped ghostly trails of virga over the valley. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ And they do it for a year and it’s on fire.”
When did he know he was the right kind of person? “My first season.”
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 a lot of what he calls “Minnesota nice.” He openly shared his time, stories and coffee with a reporter and a photographer while also admitting, rather happily, that he hoped no more guests would show up when they left. (“Innocent.”)
He spoke of the pride he takes in supporting fire managers, firefighters and his fellow rangers, whom he helps train in mapping, radio and safety skills. But he also enjoys the more selfish aspects of his work: the solitude, the long walks on empty paths.
“You have an intimacy with the landscape that you get,” said Inez Love, 72, a retired teacher who volunteers as a lookout in the Flathead. Every summer, “I leave feeling like I’m leaving someone I love.”
Mr. Haugen has worked as a lookout since 1994, but he is a temporary, seasonal employee, with no benefits. He gets overtime, but not as much as the firefighters. In the off-seasons, he works as a carpenter and house builder, earning four times as much per hour as he does as a lookout, and he uses those skills to restore old lookout posts in fire
Two years have passed since he built a house. City dwellers and remote workers flocked to Montana in the early days of the pandemic seeking open 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 difficult for the Forest Service to rent in the Flathead area, said Mr. Huntsberger, the fire management official. Five years ago, an opening for a firefighter or fire management job might receive 10 to 20 applicants, he said. Lately it’s been like two or three. Just one.
The combination is not desirable, and it also appears in other parts of the West: more houses in areas prone to fire, not enough fire experts.
“The fire was here before us, and the fire will be after us,” Mr. Huntsberger said. What’s new is all the progress we’ve made in the way of fire, and the need to protect it. “We want to do that,” he said. “But, you know, it creates challenges.”