Monday, July 11, 2011

Still-useful fire lookout tower once cutting-edge

High in one of Colorado's last functioning fire-lookout towers, Bill Ellis scans the horizon through binoculars every 15 minutes, searching for what he calls "smokes." Last month, from his vantage point on the Devil's Head tower near Sedalia, he saw three wispy plumes that became the Noddle West fire, the Nighthawk fire and the Brush 39 fire. None of those fires made headlines. Ellis alerted firefighters before the flames grew into something worse. And he has seen worse. Ellis, 79, reported the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire that traveled 10 miles in one afternoon. He heard Terry Lynn Barton's initial call reporting the blaze — the fire she had started — that became the devastating Hayman fire and burned 138,000 acres. For 27 seasons, Ellis, who looks like an extremely fit Santa Claus , has scoured the contours of Pike National Forest. He intends to work the post "as long as I can walk the trail and carry a pack, and my eyes hold out." He and his wife, who live from May to October in a modest cabin at the foot of the tower stairs, must carry in nearly everything they eat and drink.
That means hiking down to the trailhead once a week, driving to Sedalia or Castle Rock for supplies, then filling their backpacks and heading back up the hill. Forest Service mules used to help with the resupply, but that stopped a few years ago. A cistern provides water. A wood stove offers heat. There's another wood stove in the tower. Every day, Ellis carries a couple of logs up to stockpile for the September days when the weather turns cold. Ellis is one of a handful of seasonal fire lookouts hired by the U.S. Forest Service to do a job that, 100 years ago, was the cutting edge of firefighting. More than 8,000 lookouts once worked throughout the U.S. Most of their towers were built by towns and states — at the time, no federally funded firefighting existed...more

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