Friday, September 08, 2017

From one Lookout to another! More forest Fires.

It was early September, and the decision was made to close down the fire lookout tower I was at north of Peace River, Alberta.  It was the same lookout we closed down three years ago (see that old post here), but that time there had been several inches of snow on the ground prior to closing, and the water barrels had to be thawed out before they could be drained and stored.  This time it was much more civilized, and quite warm, with a fair bit of fire hazard still remaining in the area.  Regardless, Hailey and I packed our gear and were soon on the helicopter flight back to Peace River.

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Unloading gear at Peace River.

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Hailey was glad to get back into the truck camper to begin our trek home and resume relaxing retirement.  After a bit of fast food and some fuel in town, and we were on our way south!

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Alas, our freedom was shortlived Sad smile.  We weren’t even half way back when a call to head office revealed that they had ‘plans’ for me, and soon.  One of the more southern lookouts that had not been staffed for the last couple of years was now situated in the middle of a fire ‘hot zone’, and with the long weekend on the way, there was likely to be action.

So we stocked up on groceries again in Drayton Valley, and made the long drive back to the fire camp where I had spent the last four seasons.  In the morning, we hopped back in a helicopter to be dropped off at possibly one of the most scenic lookouts in the province!  Unlike the long climb up a ladder to the tiny cupola on top of a fire tower, this lookout is just a one room cabin on top of a mountain with windows all around to spot smoke.

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RV boondockers, check out this solar array! Eight panels at 110w each.  Heater and stove are gas, but the big fridge runs off the solar power.  There are six huge 12v batteries and an inverter is supposed to supply some 110v to the cabin for lights and small appliances.  It was u/s, so I rigged up the small Honda generator for a bit of AC power on occasion.  With the inverter replaced, the generator would not be used at all.

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Nearby, there is a multi-agency repeater site that has 27 of these 110w panels!

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We were soon settled in …  One sleeping off the ‘helicopter lag’, the other dutifully watching for smoke.

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It wasn’t long before the ongoing fire across the lake made it’s presence known.

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Unfortunately, it was only one of several in the area at the time, with more to come.

The view from the kitchen window was not too hard to take!

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If you like this view, check this link for a 360 degree photosphere I uploaded from the same location.  Or, click here for one I did on the far shore of the lake a couple of years ago.  From that view, the lookout is on top of the cliff bands directly across the lake.

The far shore of the lake is a scenic and popular boondocking area, and the weather on the long weekend was perfect so the many varied spots were packed with campers.

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At night their many lights and camp fires were twinkling from across the lake.  At the end of the lake near the Bighorn dam, there is an area that permits ATV’s, but thankfully none are allowed along this part of the lake.  The downside of so many campers was immediately evident to me when any internet I could locate was inconsistent and way slower than dial-up.  Once all the campers left, the service is fine.

I heard on my radio scanner one day that there had been a motor vehicle accident along the lake – with a vehicle down a steep embankment.  This is a very isolated area, and I knew that it could easily be 3/4 of an hour before any emergency vehicles arrived.  My attempts to locate the accident scene with binoculars were soon ended when I spotted a nice plume of smoke coming up at the far end of the lake!  I quickly took a bearing and estimated distance and radioed it in.  As luck would have it, we had two helicopters sitting at a fuel cache right across the lake from the lookout.  Within minutes, both were at the scene.  It soon became clear that the accident I had been searching for was actually the cause of the fire and smoke I had seen!  One machine immediately began bucketing out of the lake and the second landed on scene to check on the occupants of the vehicle and ensure they managed to escape the fire and the water being dropped from above.  With the addition of an initial attack crew that arrived shortly after, the fire was soon extinguished, and local fire, police and ems were also in attendance by that time.

Next day, another small fire across the lake was spotted by one of our helicopters flying over, even before I was able to see it from the lookout. It’s cause is under investigation, but was quickly put out before it could grow.

When Hailey isn’t outside keeping the local wildlife wild, she likes to spend time in some of the empty cupboards above the wrap-around windows in the cabin.

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Either that, or in the softest chairs!

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One thing about being in a lookout – is that aircraft are often below you!  This machine was just cruising by.

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Well that’s about it from our little ‘house on the hill’.  Should be out of here in a few days, and back in retirement mode.  It will soon be time to take off the truck camper and get the 5th wheel warmed up for the southern migration.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Another Fire Lookout, more Helicopters!


Ms Hailey and I had just gotten back from our latest camping trip in BC.  The grass was cut and the bird feeders filled when Forestry called again with a couple of temporary job offers!  Both were at fire lookouts in the north west – north of Peace River, Alberta.  The one tower I knew nothing about, but as luck would have it, out of some 127 active lookouts in Alberta, I have worked at 9 of them, some several times, and visited all of the ones in our home area.  I had worked at one of these towers three years ago and knew that it had a relatively large comfortable cabin, and the tower had also been replaced since my last visit.  So I agreed to go.

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I convinced them to let me take my own truck and camper on the trip north, which would be much more comfortable and flexible than the usual rental vehicle.  Soon we were headed north, while watching for eclipses to overtake us!  Along the way the big GMC turned over 350,000km.  I figure it should just about be finished the ‘break-in’ period and be ready to perform to it’s full potential!

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We checked in at the Fire Centre to find out what they had planned for me.  While there, I checked out the huge screens on the wall.  These displays can be configured to show all fires, lookouts, fire camps, fuel caches in any area of the province, as well as movements of all fire helicopters and bombers in real time.  I had the same displays when I was filling in at the Rocky air tanker base a couple years ago!  It’s kind of like a huge, real-life video game.  Way cool!

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Because we had the truck camper, we were not stuck in a hotel or fire camp for the night, but able to find our own quiet camp spot on the bank of the Peace River.  In the morning we found a bunch of brand new cupolas, soon destined to be atop a 100’ tower somewhere.  These are the tiny ‘offices’ occupied by lookouts all over the province.  When installed, they will have a fire finder in the center, leaving just enough space to walk around the outer edge.  During periods of high fire hazard, the lookout will be spending 11-12 hours a day in these.  When a lightning storm passes over, there you are the tallest metal structure around, and although well guarded by lightning rods, the term ‘sitting duck’ certainly comes to mind. 

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In fact, as I write this blog post, I am sitting right up there on top of the tower in the next two photos!

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At the airport, we met up with our ‘ride’, and everyone who didn’t fit in a seat belt got in their kennels, not always willingly.  But Hailey is a veteran flier, this being her 10th helicopter flight in the last few years!

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We were soon cruising over farm and forest land on the way to the lookout.

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This lookout comes with a very nice spacious cabin (unlike some I have worked at), and like an RV it is powered by a combination of solar and generator electrical power with propane fridge and stove.  Water is collected from the roof for washing, but drinking water is flown in as required.

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Unlike older towers that had safety hoops surrounding the ladder, the new ones do not, so you are pretty much in the open as you climb.  You are attached to a cable with a harness, but it is not likely a good place to be if you are afraid of heights!

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It has been a busy week, with crews coming in to clear brush around the tower, or to day-base for fastest response to any fires in the area.

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When a storm passes through, wind is howling through the tower and the windows blasted by rain or hail, it can be a noisy affair.  Sometimes, you can barely see the ground below you.

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When the storm has passed, there are often lots of mist columns, know as ‘spooks’ that can look a lot like smoke.  And if there was lightning associated with the storm, there could be smokes as well!

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In the evenings, it is a pretty quiet spot, miles away from the nearest road or railway.  The northern lights made a few appearances, and I was able to take some time exposure photos with the big dipper as well.

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Being government, there is always a lot of paperwork, and Hailey is always willing to lend a paw to keep me from getting it done.

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Any day now, the lookout will be closed down for the season, and Hailey and I will be headed for home to start preparing for our winter migration southward.  Of course, they might call us to fill in for a few weeks somewhere else further south with a longer fire season.  But we can always say No!