In fight against wildfires, Alberta's lookout towers a reliable, low-tech protector

Satellites, A.I. and cameras are some of the newer tools used to fight wildfires. Alberta is no exception, but the province insists its lookout towers are just as reliable as the latest tech.

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Smoke could be seen near Gregoire when Brett was perched 100 feet above the boreal forest last May. He noted the smoke’s direction then reported its location, and soon forestry firefighters were rushed to battle the flames.

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Brett was at a lookout tower south of Fort McMurray from early May to the end of September. He saw that wildfire on his second day. It was the first of many smoke plumes and lightning strikes he saw last summer.

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“I’m kind of a forest guy. I grew up in the forest and was a trapper with my dad. I spent a lot of time in the woods around here and I also have a solid knowledge of wildfires,” he said. “There’s really something to this lifestyle, something peaceful.”

Brett’s job as a lookout observer is disappearing in many places. Alberta has 100 towers, more than any other province. The Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region is home to eight towers. There’s no plan to disband Alberta’s program, but its towers are dwindling. There were 13 towers in the region and 127 in Alberta in 2015.

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Wildfires this year in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area burned more than 3,643 square kilometres, mostly around Fort Chipewyan and Fort Smith. During the same period, wildfires ripped through 22,148 square kilometres of Alberta. The federal government expects the annual wildfire burn area in Canada to double by 2050 as droughts and extreme heat become common.

Meanwhile, the province’s wildfire agency is partnering with AltaML, an Edmonton-based software company, to develop machine learning technology that can predict next-day fire-likelihood forecasts.

British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario are moving towards systems relying on cameras, sensors and aerial observations. The Canadian Space Agency is launching three satellites designed to monitor wildfires in 2029.

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Brett looks down from his fire lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

As Brett began winterizing his tower and cabin during a visit in late September, he wondered why his job still existed. New technology is important to Alberta Wildfire, but using newer methods alongside someone in a tower is cheaper and more reliable than relying solely on a mishmash of drones, satellites, cameras and sensors.

Fire lookouts watch conditions in real time, said Emily Smith, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire. A human can spot wildfires faster than satellites, especially if they’re small fires. A tower covers a larger area than drones.

“Alberta has many ways to detect new wildfire starts, but wildfire lookout observers are highly accurate, reliable and cost-effective,” she said. “With the use of various detection systems, Alberta has been able to report wildfires within five minutes of discovery 95 per cent of the time.”

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A peaceful, albeit difficult, job

Alberta Wildfire is upfront about the job’s difficulties. A job posting for lookout observers says candidates must be “highly self-motivated individuals” able to “overcome the solitude and often monotonous routines” of life alone in the forest. Applicants must pass physical and mental health assessments. They’re paid roughly $21 to $26 an hour. There are no days off.

Life is tough when observers arrives at a tower. Most of Brett’s day is at the top of a 100-foot tower in a perch the size of a small garden shed. Twice a day he records the weather. He uses a radio to remind observers at other towers he’s alright.

Food is delivered every three to four weeks. There is no running water, just what’s been provided in a big tank near his cabin. The shower is a bag and a hose. A propane generator powers the stove, fridge and heater.

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Brett passes the time gardening and reading. He was lucky enough to have internet reception this year. There were also plenty of chores around his cabin keeping him busy. His peers in other towers have passed the time writing, painting, sketching, making music, praying and meditating. An observer in the Grande Prairie area spent 30 years painting. One year, Brett said an observer played the drums.

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Brett climbs a 100-foot ladder of a fire lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Finding work once wildfire season ends is difficult. Brett spends the winter living with family and survives off EI. He occasionally travels.

“It’s tough finding work outside of this if you’re honest with an employer that you’ll only be around for a few months,” he said.

The job has its dangers. Wildlife, especially bears, are always a threat. Getting to a hospital during a medical emergency could take hours. New applicants are warned about the loneliness of the job.

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Towers are evacuated if wildfires approach or the smoke is too thick. In 2015, a helicopter that was supposed to pick up Brett was delayed 2015 because the pilot couldn’t see through the smoke. The fire was about 20 kilometres away when a pilot finally arrived.

The job can be difficult emotionally when observers watch wildfires move towards homes. The 2016 Horse River wildfire was a tiny puff of smoke on the horizon to Brett, but he knew Fort McMurray was on fire. As the smoke drifted towards him, he wondered if he was inhaling someone’s home.

“I am somewhat removed from everything that’s going on. The mental capacity of worrying about all of the things that are going on I hear through the radio can get to you if you let it,” he said. “You just say well, I can’t do anything about it because I can’t. I can donate money online but that’s about it. I have to let that stuff go.”

Despite the challenges, there’s little turnover. Most lookout observers in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area plan to return next year. Some have been in the program for decades. It’s hard to walk away from the nature, the wildlife and the quiet that comes with the job.

“I don’t know what this job will look like in the future, but I know you can’t beat it,” said Brett.

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Brett shows how he records the location of smoke plumes from a lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Photo by Emily Smith for Postmedia Network
Brett shows how he records the location of smoke plumes from a lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Photo by Emily Smith for Postmedia Network
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Brett sits in his cabin outside his fire lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Brett with his weather monitoring equipment near his fire lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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