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.
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!
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!
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.
In fact, as I write this blog post, I am sitting right up there on top of the tower in the next two photos!
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!
We were soon cruising over farm and forest land on the way to the lookout.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!