When Rob Du Brey scanned the forest from his perch high atop the Robinson Butte fire lookout tower Monday morning, instinct told him the tendril rising out of the forest to the east was no water dog sniffing around.
He'll tell you the vapor clouds with the canine nickname tend to occur in the mornings, particularly after rainstorms, rising quickly in a vertical, white column before dissipating a few minutes later.
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"A water dog turns into a cloud or evaporates real quick," Du Brey explained. "It'll come up as a column, then push over and become a misty cloud before evaporating.
"Smoke is more of a column that goes up a lot higher before it starts to become a cloud."
"And the color is different," he added. "A smoke is often darker because of the timber or grass burning. A water dog is white."
Still, he studied the column for a bit to make sure it was smoke, not a vapor dog wagging its tail.
"I could see it was a high white column coming up out of the trees," he said. "It was about 9 o'clock when I called it in. I asked them if the fire was out that I had called in the day before.
"They sent in a spotter plane but by then the fire had gone dormant again," he added. "The plane circled about 15 minutes, then called me to see if I still saw anything. About two minutes later the column came up again and they spotted it."
The fire — lookouts refer to it as a "smoke" — was a few miles east of Robinson Butte in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The historic lookout, atop a dizzying 52-foot-high tower, is about two miles as the crow flies southwest of Fish Lake in the Cascade Mountains.
Although the tower is on the national forest, Du Brey, 32, of Medford, is an Oregon Department of Forestry employee. He spends six days and nights on Robinson Butte, which rises to 5,864 feet above sea level, followed by four days and nights at the lookout on Soda Mountain, 6,091 feet high, before getting a few days off.
The fire was the second one he had spotted in as many days following a series of lightning storms that began Aug. 7 and continued rumbling periodically through the region for a week.
Both fires were quickly knocked down and mopped up by ground teams deployed to the sites, saving money and resources.
In fact, 42 fire starts were reported on the forest since the recent lighting storms began, according to spokesman Paul Galloway. However, all of them have been extinguished, he noted. That included 23 on the High Cascades Ranger District, where the Robinson Butte lookout is located.
"With thousands of lightning strikes from the latest series of storms, initial attack resources were initially beefed up in anticipation of the lightning, and then supplemented by aircraft, engines and crews from the large fires in the area to successfully keep all new starts small in size," Galloway said.
Du Brey was on Soda Mountain when lightning storms started marching north from California on Aug. 7.
"To the south, the storms sat there for about an hour and a half," he recalled. "About every 30 to 40 seconds there was lightning in the clouds. It got a little exciting."
You'd think that Du Brey is a seasoned fire lookout. Actually, he is just a quick study in his first summer who thoroughly enjoys his work.
"I always wanted to see what it was like on one of these," he said, noting he had once read about a writer who gained insight while working as fire lookout atop a remote mountain.
Hailing from Klamath Falls, Du Brey is a world traveler with an associate degree in philosophy who has done everything from cook in restaurants to cut logs in Costa Rica.
Robinson Butte was first established as a fire lookout site in 1913, according to the History of the Rogue River National Forest, Vol. 2. The first tower was a 20-foot high pole structure built in 1933. The present tower was originally built in 1963 on Blue Rock overlooking the Sky Lakes Wilderness. The tower was transferred to Robinson Butte in 1974.
Soda Mountain, an estimated 23 air miles south of Robinson Butte, has been a fire lookout site since 1933. It has a 10-foot-high wooden tower built in 1962. The lookout is in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
Both lookouts are on the National Historic Lookout Register.
Lightning isn't something to be trifled with, reported the Mail Tribune on July 23, 1935.
"Officials reported today that during the height of the storm Sunday night Mrs. Herb Wright, wife of lookout fireman stationed at Robinson Butte, was temporarily stunned by a bolt of lightning that struck a short distance from her," the paper noted. "She was attending a forest service telephone while her husband was at work on a nearby fire."
Back in the day, telephone lines were strung from lookouts down to fire guard stations where firefighters were alerted to a fire.
Like most fire lookout occupants, Du Brey has a cot, a small refrigerator and a small gas stove. Just above the wrap-around windows on the interior of the building are hand-written notes estimating the air miles to various sites, including 23 miles south to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility in White City, a note likely written by a veteran.
"I bring my food — the fire engines bring up water," he said. "At minimum, I make sure I go to town once a week to shower."
An avid birder, he has captured turkey vultures and hawks riding the thermal air masses surrounding the tower. Deer sometimes step out of the nearby woods to peer up at the immense structure.
In the middle of his "living room" is a firefinder, a device using a circular map and a sighting instrument to help pinpoint the location of a fire.
"Normally, the first thing I do when I get up is take a little walk around here in my underwear — that cold air wakes you up better than coffee," he said with a chuckle.
But he does get to work quickly, taking advantage of the morning air.
"I do a rough scan first thing in the morning," he said. "The sun is harsh to the east. It's normally really hazy with some fog. You relax your eyes and look for bright spots, bright columns."
He also has learned to read the land much like a whitewater rafter reads the water.
"I'll see one (water dog) every morning at the base of Chinquapin Mountain way out there past Howard Prairie lake," he said. "When we get precip, we have water dogs coming up out of this canyon between here and (Highway) 140."
When he determines the columnar cloud rising out of the forest is not a water dog, he employs the firefinder.
"We use the firefinder for every smoke," he said. "You just line it up like you would in target practice."
With that, he sights through the firefinder.
"You look through this slot and line the hair up with the smoke," he said. "What you have is an azimuth reading. Then you call in the azimuth."
It is a bit of a challenge determining how far distant the smoke is if it is closer than the nearest geographic feature, he said.
"When they are real close and you have no landmarks, it is tough," he said. "When it is way out there, you have all those topographical features and you can narrow it down real quick.
"You call in the azimuth, tell them (fire officials) what color it is, how big it is, if it is growing, shrinking, whether the wind is pushing it over," he continued. "Then you have to figure out the legal description: township, range, section, subsection. You get it down as tight as you can."
That includes whatever road access will get firefighters close to the target, he noted.
"There has been a lot of overtime, a couple of days off canceled so far," he said. "We've had a lot of lightning. But if you catch a couple of fires early, it saves a lot of money and trees."
Du Brey figures he may spend the winter as a cook, then return to serving as a fire lookout again next summer.
"It's kind of a community service, doing this," he said. "I also get away from the cellphone, the Internet.
"And I get away from people, not that I have a problem talking to people," he added. "But it's a nice little break. It's a good life out here."
He stopped talking for moment to scan the view shed for signs of a smoke.
"And you sure can't beat the view out here," he said as he peered through his binoculars.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.