Fire towers key to early detectionOne hundred feet above the ground, the wind at noon Tuesday was gusting to 40 mph and the jack pine below were bending hard toward the north.
By: John Myers / Duluth News Tribune , Superior Telegram
GORDON — The windows were rattling and the steel-frame tower shuddered, but Bea Laakkonen didn’t seem to mind.
One hundred feet above the ground, the wind at noon Tuesday was gusting to 40 mph and the jack pine below were bending hard toward the north.
“I actually like the noise that wind makes,” Laakkonen said as she peered through binoculars. “It’s nice to just have the wind and the quiet up here.”
She enjoys the wildlife, too. On Tuesday, a bald eagle soared below the tower, battling the gusts. On Monday, Laakkonen peered down into the St. Croix River below and saw a huge fish.
“You never know what you are going to see from up here,” she said. “And this is the Cadillac of the towers around here. It’s pretty solid.”
Laakkonen, of nearby Bennett, is one of dozens of seasonal fire spotters across Wisconsin who climb ladders or stairs — 159 steps at the Gordon tower — nearly every day this time of year to search the horizon for puffs of smoke. They bring lunch, a Thermos and maybe a crossword puzzle book to the job. But mostly they bring a keen eye.
This year the spotters are in their towers earlier than ever — especially in southern Douglas County, where an early snowmelt and several years of drought have left the landscape parched. They are Wisconsin’s first line of defense against wildfires, and on clear days they can spot smoke 20 to 40 miles away.
On Tuesday, fire officials were especially on edge, with temperatures near 70 degrees away from Lake Superior and winds strong enough to quickly fan tiny fires into major conflagrations. Today is expected to be even warmer, though less windy.
The key is to get crews and water on the fires before they can spread. On Monday, Laakkonen and spotters in two other towers nearly simultaneously spotted a plume of black smoke near Dairyland, about 15 miles west of Gordon.
Laakkonen is in her second year on the job, but some spotters have spent decades at it. They learn to tell the difference between smoke from a wildfire and a swirling dust devil, tractors kicking up dirt in a farm field, woodstove smoke and even ATVs on trails.
Each spotter uses a large dial and sight, called an alidade, to provide a compass heading for the fire from the tower. They then use fixed landmarks to estimate a distance. They also keep track of the color and size of the smoke, then use a two-way radio to call the Brule area dispatch center.
The towers are strategically placed 10 to 15 miles apart so when one spotter reports a plume of smoke, one or more spotters in other towers miles away can hone in on the same smoke and provide a triangulation to help map the location for crews driving to the scene.
“That was the blackest smoke I’ve seen so far. Most are usually puffs of white,” Laakkonen said of Monday’s fire. Crews got to the spot to find a fire burning across brush, grass, garbage and an old farmstead now used as a deer-hunting camp.
“We nearly lost the structure on that one. The fire was crawling up the side of the building before we got it out,” said Mark Braasch, the DNR’s forest ranger in Gordon.
Wisconsin has 69 fire towers staffed across the forested part of the state this spring, many of which have been in service since the 1930s.
The Minnesota DNR years ago abandoned its network of fire towers and moved entirely to aircraft for fire detection. The Wisconsin DNR also uses aircraft, which are used to pinpoint fire locations and even direct ground crews. But wildfire experts on the ground say the old towers give them a faster lead time and continuous coverage of each area.
“I think we get quicker detection,” said Jay Gallagher, DNR area forestry leader in Brule. “We have someone looking at the same area [of the forest] all day, not just when the airplane happens to be over that area.”