Environment

The lonely life of a wildfire lookout in northern Alberta

Canada's wildfire lookouts live under constant threat that they will be replaced by technology. But they've never been more essential.

Champagne ascends the 30-m ladder to his lookout perch (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Champagne ascends the 30-m ladder to his lookout perch (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

“Thunder showers are expected again,” a monotone voice reports over the radio, “and crossover conditions persist.” Aaron Champagne, 38, scowls from his perch 30 m up in the smoke-clogged sky, in the shadow of the Rockies. He’s one of Alberta’s 100 lookout observers, the first line of defence against wildfires, who live alone for five months a year in the parched summer forests, spending long hours, seven days a week, spotting first smokes.

“It’s gnarly out here, wicked dry. All of our forests are just waiting for the opportunity to ignite,” he says from his tower, a couple of hours’ drive northwest of Edmonton. “We’re dying to get some rain.”

It’s only mid-July, and Alberta has already detected 908 fires—well above the five-year average of 784 for this time of year; forecasters expect the elevated fire danger to last all summer. Day in and day out, thunderstorms throw down lightning strikes without dropping enough precipitation to extinguish the fires they start. It’s the same devastating weather cycle that has thrown B.C. into a wildfire crisis, destroying vast tracts of forest, burning the village of Lytton and claiming at least two lives.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures and falling humidity have Champagne on high alert: these are the dangerous “crossover conditions” referred to in the weather report that turn the forest into perfect kindling, he says in a live video chat from his cupola. “I haven’t had a day that wasn’t high or extreme fire hazard since the beginning of June.”

Human fire lookouts have seldom seemed as important as they have this summer. Alberta has the largest and most active network of them in Canada, covering much of the forested areas of the province. Champagne watches over a 40-km radius, but on recent days, smoke from B.C. and his own province has reduced visibility to about one kilometre.

READ: Layton Keddy disappeared into the Australian wilderness

That makes him uncomfortable. The job of the lookout observer, he says, is not just to spot a fire, but to take action “while it’s still small enough to have an easy win.” They take a compass bearing to pinpoint the fire’s location and then radio that information, with a description of the smoke, to a regional wildfire centre. The centre, conferring with a duty officer, then decides whether to send crews or aircraft or both.

As Alberta relies more heavily on its lookouts, though, other provinces are phasing them out. B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario count among those converting to camera systems and aerial detection. The provinces have introduced varying systems to meet the circumstances of their unique geographies, says Robert McAlpine, adjunct professor at Western University in London, Ont. Until 2017, he oversaw wildfire firefighting operations across Ontario.

Ontario dismantled its fire towers in the 1970s because the population and structures in its forested areas are sparse. A large network of towers—many located in the distant wilderness—was an inefficient way to protect people and property, says McAlpine, so the province moved to aerial detection. Yet lookout observers offer continuous monitoring, while planes fly over only a few times a day. Unless smoke appears when you happen to fly by, you’re going to miss it, he notes. By contrast, Alberta’s population and assets are spread more evenly across the province, so the continuous coverage provided by a tower system is worth it, says McAlpine.

READ: Facing a wall of flame and smoke in northern Alberta

Other provinces have kept their towers but replaced the humans in them with cameras. Which approach works better—human or machine—remains a live debate. Stuart Matthews, a scientist with the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre in Australia, found a decade ago that human observers were faster and more reliable at detection than the most widely used camera systems. The cameras had high rates of false alarms, which are costly when firefighting crews are sent out needlessly.

But Matthews notes there have been advances in camera technology and machine vision since then, and recent advances combine camera images with satellite detection. The Canadian Space Agency and the Canadian Forest Service plan to launch a satellite for fire detection in five years.

Alberta is sticking for now with a combination of systems that are based on geographic location, says Josee St-Onge, a provincial wildfire information officer. The province will continue using observers in high-risk areas, she says, while testing technology in lower-risk zones. Meanwhile, the lookouts remain invaluable to firefighters in remote areas, she says, providing much-needed communication links when radio transmission is spotty. Some double as weather stations.

“One day we could get to the point where technology could hypothetically replace my eyes and my instincts,” Champagne says. But he warns against making the switch too soon. “Think about every piece of technology that’s ever failed you. Do you really want to lean on that when it comes to something in a domain of safety? We have to be really careful. People die out here.”

***

Champagne fastens the buckles of his full-body harness and clips into a cable with a fall-arrest system before opening the small hatch leading to his ladder. Looking down at the speck-like trees below, he clenches the wall with one hand and the ladder with the other. “When I look straight down, I get vertigo. I’m just wondering: what happens if I fall? And when I’m on the ladder, I always have three points of contact, like two hands and a foot, and my body hugging the ladder. It still gives me the willies.”

The radio interrupts again. Wind is gusting through the cupola windows and into the octagonal room, which measures just two-and-a-half metres across, muffling Champagne’s voice. In every direction, he can see only trees mingled with smoke.

The tower is built to bend with the wind, creating a sensation Champagne likens to being in a car on a bumpy road. But on July 1, he says, he sat in his cupola during a “once-in-a-career storm.” It was extremely hot and dry as he watched thunderheads build all afternoon. His phone app warned that satellites had tracked a lot of lightning, though he hadn’t seen any.

Atop the tower, Champagne watches over a 40-km radius (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Atop the tower, Champagne watches over a 40-km radius (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Then the wind slammed into the tower, and his adrenalin set in. He lifted his feet off the floor and grasped the armrests of his chair. The towers are equipped with lightning rods and ground wires. But during thunderstorms, observers must avoid touching metal. “When the lightning is overhead, I will watch it form a static arc between these metal bolts throughout my cupola,” Champagne says.

That day, he tracked 102 lightning strikes in 40 minutes. “It was absolutely crazy.”

Sarah, a 65-year-old observer who staffs a lookout outside Hinton, three hours west of Edmonton, has worked as a lookout for 18 years since her children moved out. She’d left behind a career in health care to pursue what she considered her dream job. (Sarah is not her real name; Maclean’s has withheld her identity and the precise locations of towers because of security concerns for employees posted alone in the field.) Although her tower was once directly hit by lightning, she says she feels safe as a lookout.

“That was really exciting,” she recalls. “It was a huge amount of light and noise that shot me to the ceiling.” The tower’s ground wire, which reaches several feet into the earth, protected her, but the strike seriously damaged her cellphone and radio. “It’s awesome observing these lightning storms,” she says. “It’s the power of Mother Nature at her most furious.”

Not even the fires themselves scare Sarah and most of her colleagues. In rare instances when lookout stations get burnt over, observers are typically pulled out days in advance.

Nor do they seem fazed by the lynx, cougars, bears and moose with whom they share the land—though the wildlife sometimes tests their alertness. Champagne has had problem bears show up 14 times in a week; they were attracted to his dishwater. “I’ve had a moose with her calf get territorial,” he adds. “She would charge at me. I had to climb a communication tower.”

To deal with such encounters, Champagne carries a simple air horn when walking in the woods, and a shotgun he’s used only to fire warning shots.

The most problematic species for the lookouts is Homo sapiens. The occasional drunk hunter has tried to climb the ladder, so Champagne is trained in self-defence and de-escalation skills. And the wildfire community is still haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a 70-year-old lookout named Stephanie Stewart, who was last seen in 2006 at her fire tower. The case is being investigated as a homicide.

Being so far from help can create a sense of vulnerability, Champagne says. His worst day came when he spilled a cup of scalding tea on his abdomen. He suffered second-degree burns across his body and needed to climb down the 30-m ladder naked for medical evacuation. His clothes were too painful to wear.

***

Champagne’s phone beeps. It’s one of his safety buddies, another wildfire lookout. “He’s letting me know that he’s finished climbing the ladder and is safe and sound in his cupola.” It’s protocol to “always watch each others’ backs,” he says. “We’re alone in the woods, but we’re not alone-alone.”

The wildfire lookout network is a close family with a shared purpose—deeply connected though physically distant from each other. “There’s definitely a sense of community, and we’re looking out for each other,” says Sarah. Some keep their cellphones on for hours-long chats with each other, and the whole group has support from aides, supervisors, communications technologists and fire crews that respond to their alerts.

Champagne stays connected by writing long letters to loved ones. When his niece was born, he wrote her a letter using nothing but phonetically spelled baby sounds, to be read aloud to her. He creates digital art for friends.

The solitude is what attracts many lookouts. Some summers, especially the rainy ones, offer them a lot of time. People who love to write, play music, create art, read and commune with nature gravitate to the job. They live in bare cabins below their towers. They have small RV pumps for their kitchen sinks and gravity-fed water with homemade showers. The appeal of rusticity has its limits, of course. This summer, Champagne says, his cabin has gotten so hot that he’s been unable to sleep, making him “irritable to the point of tears.” He has resorted to pacing outside, he says, to “burn off the cooped-up feeling.”

Still, most lookouts enjoy the solitude. “On a low-hazard day, when I can spend time on the ground, I’m walking and picking berries and baking,” says Sarah. For Champagne, it borders on the therapeutic. “I’ve discovered myself,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety in my life, a lot of low self-esteem, and I’ve never really felt so sure of myself as I do here. I’m not scared of myself. I am safe with me. It’s peace for me.”

The demands of this fire season, though, have been extraordinary: 11 or more hours per day on high alert, up in the often sauna-like towers. There’s been little time for picking berries.

In a sense, these lone sentinels are observing the effects of climate change close-up, and the shifts to extreme weather and longer fire seasons are no longer occurring in slow motion. Champagne, for one, acknowledges that changes he’s witnessed over the last decade—the ever drier conditions; the growing frequency of lightning strikes; the sheer ferocity of the blazes—make him anxious.

Alberta has seen some of its worst fire seasons ever in the past 10 years, including 2019’s, when the province had the second-most hectares burned in its recorded history. Wildfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer, propelled by extreme weather conditions, says St-Onge, the wildfire information officer. Alberta Wildfire’s lookout program needed to push the start date up to March 1 to adapt to climate change, says St-Onge.

It’s a message that lookouts like Champagne are increasingly desperate to get across to people who aren’t feeling the effects of the change the way they are. The truth hit home for him when he recently took two years away from his tower to work as a computer programmer in Edmonton. “I remember being in my office cubicle and resenting the air conditioning and the air-filtration system,” he says. “Everything felt fine, even though the entire province was bathed in smoke.

“You could just go inside and put your face to that monitor and feel like it’ll all be okay. But it’s not. It’s not going to take care of itself.”


This article appears in print in the September 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Where there’s smoke.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.