FEATURE – There are a few modern-day Rapunzels on the Kaibab Plateau but they don’t have to let down their hair in order for anyone to access their lofty perches. There are stairs to climb for those who want to pay them a visit (if fear of heights isn’t a problem). They welcome visitors because it breaks up what can turn into a monotonous day and they enjoy sharing what they do, which is central to the U.S. Forest Service’s mission there.
The lookout towers are holdovers from a program started over a century ago that is being phased out in other states but has staying power in this isolated forest in Northern Arizona, partly because of the area’s topography. Most lookout towers are built on high mountains, but the Kaibab towers are on a plateau and don’t have that luxury, so they were built above the tops of the trees to provide needed vantage points.
The Forest Service’s fire lookout program started in 1905, originally as platforms in tall trees with boards fastened to the trees as ladders. The agency started building wooden towers in the 1920s, and in the 1930s, the metal ones were built.
The Jacob Lake and Big Springs towers, both 100-foot Aermotor MC-39 models, were built in 1934 by contractors from Kanab, Utah. The Dry Park Tower was built in 1944, an Aermotor MC-99 model that is 120 feet tall. The enclosed platform at the top of the towers is 7 feet by 7 feet and a cabin was built at the bottom of each for the lookout person to live in.
“Because of the topography, they’re still very valuable,” Connie Reid, North Kaibab Ranger District archaeologist and tribal liaison, said, explaining that those who man the lookouts do an excellent job at spotting smoke.
The Kaibab National Forest does still utilize aircraft to monitor the forest, but usually after storms and in places out of the towers’ range, she said.
“Fire lookouts don’t have the limitations that aircraft sometimes do,” North Kaibab Ranger District Public Information Officer David Hercher said. “For example, fire lookouts can be staffed earlier and for longer periods of time. They are less likely to be impacted by inclement weather and reduce the risk of exposure to pilots.”
Those manning the lookout towers work five days a week and their hours can be extended when fire danger is extreme or when a fire is going on to watch fire behavior because it can be erratic in the wind. For instance, last month they worked some 10 hour days and sometimes six days a week when fire danger was at its highest. Lookouts work seasonally, usually from May to October.
Surprisingly, this hasn’t been a job with high turnover over the years. One lookout has been climbing the towers for over 20 years and Big Springs Tower lookout Ross Rogers has been spending summers on the Kaibab Plateau off and on since 1949, when he was a child. His father, Royce Rogers, who was a fifth grade teacher in the Phoenix area, took a summer job as a lookout in the Dry Park Tower that year and his parents kept coming back year after year. It helped that his mother, Mavis Rogers, was originally from nearby Moccasin, Arizona.
“They just loved it,” Rogers said of his parents’ summer job. “It was almost like we were going on a camping vacation for the summer.”
The family stayed in a cabin near the tower, but it truly was just a step above camping – a one room cabin to which the Forest Service added a lean-to extra bedroom to accommodate the eventual seven children the Rogers added to their brood. There was no electricity and no running water in the cabin, which was only equipped with a wood-burning stove. They had to carry water in a 10-gallon bucket from a cistern in a nearby meadow, they used Coleman lanterns for light and his mother did laundry by washboard.
One of Rogers’s most memorable moments from those summers spent on the Plateau was being drug across the meadow holding onto a rope with a calf at the end of it. He said he also remembered the excitement of when his parents would see smoke and the children just had to climb the tower to see it for themselves. The tower became the children’s monkey bars and they’d also play a game in which they’d drop a rock from the top to see if it could reach the bottom without hitting any part of the tower. Usually, the rocks didn’t make it much past half way without hitting a part of the tower. And they did all of this with no guardrails on the stairs like there are now, Ross said.
In the late 1960s, the Rogers family moved from Dry Park to the Big Springs Tower and even after his father died in the 1970s, his mother kept up the work until 1999, when she was nearly 80. As things turned out, she encouraged her son to apply for the job and he became her replacement. He had just retired from following his father’s footsteps in another realm, teaching 5th grade in the Las Vegas area. In 2000, he followed both of his parents’ footsteps, climbed back up the tower, and has been there every summer since. He was happy for the chance to move back to Moccasin to help his mother, who died a few years ago, in her waning years.
Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon North Rim Interagency Fuels Specialist Dave Robinson said the forest has been fortunate to have lookouts like Rogers who have been there a long time and bring with them a lot of institutional knowledge as well as a great pulse on the lay of the land, which leads to better effectiveness. It takes a unique person to be a lookout, he said, and that morale among the lookouts has been good from year to year because they have a special connection to the forest, none more so than Rogers.
“They are a very important part of our team,” Robinson said.
A typical day in the tower
The fire lookouts check in at 8 a.m. and get readings on the weather that they relay back to the dispatch office in Williams, Arizona. Readings include visibility, wind speed, humidity, and temperature.
The lookouts stagger their lunches so there is always a lookout in at least one of the towers. After lunch, lookouts weigh “fuel sticks” to measure fuel moisture. It is important to track fuel moisture because they can aid fire management in predicting fire behavior firefighters may encounter when responding to a wildfire, Robinson said; the lower the fuel moisture, the more active the fire behavior may be.
They give another weather report to dispatch at lunchtime as well. Weather reports consist of numbers that equate to certain weather patterns, such as the number two, which means half cloudy to the number nine, which means storm with lightning, Rogers said.
With so much down time in the tower, Rogers said he reads a lot and listens to the radio, but sometimes he just likes to turn off the radio, listen to the birds and enjoy the peace of the forest. To pass the time, he said his mother made doilies and Christmas ornaments she gave to others as gifts.
“We really enjoy visitors,” Rogers said. “It breaks up the day.”
When visitors come, Rogers said he explains how the firefinder works, what he does and why it’s important. He also points out the scenery visible from his tower, which includes the Grand Canyon in Arizona, parts of Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and the Pine Valley Mountains in Utah, a little bit of Kanab, Utah, and Fredonia, Arizona.
Even with great visibility, Rogers said he can’t see the other towers because of the ridges in the way but said he has flashed a mirror from the tower and his wife could see it from Moccasin, Arizona.
The lookouts are an important part of the Forest Service’s interpretation and education, Robinson said.
“Due to the remoteness of most of the district, reliable communications can be a challenge as cell phone will not work in most locations,” Hercher said. “For this reason, fire lookouts also serve as vital communications links for emergency services throughout the district.”
Robinson received only 300 visitors all summer last season due to his tower’s more isolated, less accessible location. In fact, his mother was quoted in a book about fire lookouts saying that, if she had visitors, they were usually lost. The Jacob Lake Tower, which sits right by the main highway, received approximately 1,300 visitors last summer, Robinson said.
Rogers said his wife has gotten used to his long absences as a fire lookout. He stays at the cabin near the lookout during the week and comes home on weekends, but he said sometimes he receives visitors that stay more than a few minutes – family members who stay with him for a time in the summer. For instance, a 10-year-old granddaughter came and stayed a week with him this summer.
Lightning and wind
Lightning is the main perpetrator when it comes to fires and lightning strikes seem to beat the odds in the towers, because, as Rogers explained it, they almost invite lightning to hit them.
Since 2000, Rogers said his tower has been hit by lightning five times while he’s been sitting in it.
“It’s grounded really well,” Rogers said of the tower’s ability to absorb lightning. “I don’t really worry about it anymore. It’s all over before you even know it.”
The lookouts sit on stools with glass legs to further help insulate them from lightning strikes.
The tower swaying in the wind hardly fazes Rogers anymore either.
“You get used to it,” he said of the wind.
Lightning strikes and having to climb the tower in 70-mph wind have been Rogers’ most exciting moments on the job, he said.
Another memorable moment Rogers related was when a little boy got scared and ran down the tower during a storm and reached the bottom of the tower just before lightning struck it, Ross recounted. If the boy would have been on the tower when the lightning struck it, he could have died.
Where there’s smoke …
Spotting smoke is, of course, the main reason the lookouts are up there.
When the lookout sees smoke, he or she uses a device called the Osborne Firefinder, which helps the lookout determine the direction of smoke once spotted by providing a directional bearing, called an azimuth.
“The lookouts use that angular distance from their fixed position to estimate the distance, which is challenging on the Kaibab Plateau because there are no peaks to use as reference points,” Hercher said.
Today, the lookouts can call each other or dispatch to help estimate distances and get a cross-reading from each tower, but when Rogers was a child they didn’t have that luxury.
“Most of the time we see the smoke,” Rogers said. “We usually don’t see flames.”
Lookouts also must pay attention to the color of the smoke, which gives an indication of what’s burning. For instance, burning dead and down fuels like needles typically produce white smoke. Tree torching typically produces black smoke, Hercher said, and blue smoke can typically indicate burning vegetation like shrubs.
The smoke’s location, its color, its size and whether it is growing are the four main things lookouts tell dispatch when they see it and they continue to monitor the smoke for crews on the ground until the crews arrive on the scene.
Robinson said it is important to monitor the smoke because, in some cases, it might not be smoke at all. Sometimes it can be residual water vapor or fog during the monsoon season.
Most fires on the Kaibab Plateau are caused by lightning, about 90 percent, while humans cause only approximately 10 percent of the fires on the plateau, Robinson said.
One year, Rogers said, there were eight fires going at the same time during one lightning storm. Sometimes the Forest Service simply lets fires burn to help restore the ecosystem, depending on the place and time,
“A vast majority are single trees that we suppress,” he said of those fires.
The towers are still a valuable resource, Rogers said, a vital resource in spotting and monitoring fires.
“Sometimes we pick them up before the planes even get in the air,” he said.
Visiting the Kaibab Plateau fire lookouts
A visit to the fire lookouts on the Kaibab Plateau should start at Jacob Lake, Arizona, which is just under a two-hour drive from St. George and just under 30 miles southeast of Fredonia, Arizona, on U.S. Highway 89A.
The most accessible fire lookout is the Jacob Lake Tower, located on the left (east) side of the highway just over a mile south of Jacob Lake Inn on Arizona state Route 67 (the Grand Canyon Highway). A visit to a fire lookout would be a nice addition to a trip exploring the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
For information on visiting the other lookouts, Big Springs and Dry Park, drop by the Forest Service’s Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center just south of Jacob Lake Inn. The Visitor Center can provide directions and/or maps to the other lookouts.
At heights of 100 and 120 feet above ground level, climbing up to the top of the lookouts might not be ideal for those with a fear of heights, but the stairs are enclosed by railings, giving a certain measure of security.
Those who climb the towers will be rewarded with expansive views and an interesting conversation with the Forest Service’s first line of defense in fire management – fire lookouts.
For more information, visit the fire lookout webpage of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (which helps restore lookout towers). Many of the members are former fire lookouts themselves.
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