Like the lighthouse operator and long-distance runner, the fire watcher is surrounded in romance and lore. These solitary figures spend hour after hour, day after day, month after month perched high atop our nation’s forests searching for any sign of impending forest fire. How did the job of fire watcher begin? Here’s the story.
The first fire lookout was built in 1876 by the Southern Pacific Railroad on Red Mountain near Donner Summit to watch for train fires. Then in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service adopted the idea. They followed the example of the railroad and began using fire watchers to create an organized fire prevention and detection system.
The Forest Service built a network of forest fire lookout stations across the U.S. At first, the stations were little more than campsites. The fire watcher would ride there on horseback, make his observations and travel to the next site. Later, crow’s-nest platforms were built atop the highest trees. The fire watcher would stand vigil, sometimes for hours or days at a time. If a fire was spotted, the fire watcher often became a firefighter, jumping on his horse or hiking to the fire to help put it out. By 1914 the job of fire watcher was more defined and these solitary workers spent their days in live-in cabins built on top of huge towers.
In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, government programs to put people back to work included the Civilian Conservation Corps. With the help of the CCC, fire watch towers began springing up across the county; over 8,000 towers were built and staffed by full-time fire watchers.
During World War II, the fire watchers’ keen observation skills were used to look out for enemy aircraft. The fire watchers staffed aircraft observation decks 365 days a year until the war ended.
Although many fire watchers were phased out in the 1970s in favor of airplane observation, we need to stay vigilant when it comes to fire prevention. Being a fire watcher is just as important today as it was many years ago.
*Look for ways to prevent electrical fires. Check for frayed wires and replace them. Always use the correct fuses, check ground wires and keep combustibles away from machines.
*Look for ways to avoid chemical fires. Always read MSDS’s, SDS’s and labels, keep flammable liquids away from ignition sources, check compressed gas cylinders for leaks and always store cylinders securely. Practice welding only in areas with fire-resistant floors.
*Look for ways to keep your work area safe. Keep machines free of dust and grease. Dispose of combustibles like oily rags properly. Keep walkways, stairs and fire doors free of debris.
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*Copyright 2005 Harkins Safety B204