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MailTribune.com
  • Room with a view

    Fire tower lookouts trust their instincts, and their training, to see trouble quickly
  • 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.
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  • 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.
    "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.
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