When the bush has eyes: Life as an Australian fire spotter

 abc.net.au  2/14/2018 6:45:51 PM   Words and pictures by Jane Cowan

Updated February 15, 2018 06:09:47

Fire spotters are the first line of defence against catastrophe.

For three months over summer the Victorian bush has eyes.

Like birds in nests, fire lookout observers perch in 74 towers strategically scattered throughout the state, their collective gaze trained on the forest.

They can detect the first wisp of smoke within minutes of a fire starting.

By lining up the smoke with bearings marked on the walls of the cabin and then plotting those bearings on a map with string and magnets, fire spotters can pinpoint a location with astonishing accuracy — down to 50 metres.

Less visible — and less celebrated — than firefighting, fire spotting is a solitary task, performed in relative obscurity. Much of the population is unaware of the existence of fire spotters like Paul Leishman, even as his work protects their daily lives.

"We're the smoke alarms of the state. And working smoke alarms save lives."

Fire lookout observer is a job title the 67-year-old never anticipated when he was a young man studying to be an industrial engineer.

His patch, in the Fryers Ridge State Forest near the town of Elphinstone about an hour and a half north-west of Melbourne, stretches through the box ironbark forest as far as the eye can see in all directions. 80 or 90 kilometres, on a clear day. But beyond 40 kilometres another fire spotter has usually seen it first.

"I always wanted a corner office with a view. Isn't that everybody's dream? This has got four corners and four views."

Never mind the office is 20 metres in the air, reachable only by steel ladders. Measuring a squeezy 1.9 metres square, there is no way to get far from the edge.

Job prerequisite number one: no fear of heights.

Everything Paul brings to work, including the milk bottle he employs instead of descending to the hole-in-the-ground toilet, comes and goes in a wire crate winched on a battery-driven rope and pulley system.

Air conditioned the cabin is not, except by the breeze.

And it can it blow.

In eight years, Paul's never yet had to abandon his post because of fire, but storms and wind have driven him out.

It happened as recently as a few weeks ago when a wild storm uprooted trees and turned a 15-minute drive home into a three-hour odyssey that ended with Paul abandoning his truck and traversing the final two kilometres on foot.

When the wind gets up, the tower shakes and rocks. When it gets really windy - about 85 kilometres per hour - the tower stops shaking and instead leans, pinned to one side.

Though Paul shrugs it off, being a fire spotter takes a certain nerve.

A life in fire

It was an eventual career as a farmer that led Paul to the CFA, where he spent 30 years as an air observer (fire spotting from an aircraft) and then trained to become an air attack supervisor, a role which put him directly over bushfires, choreographing the delicate and dangerous aerial ballet whereby planes and helicopters douse the flames from above.

It tells you something about the man that he performed this high-pressure and entirely unpaid role for 10 years, on the back of his preceding three decades as a volunteer.

It was a few years ago when Paul finished a 15-hour shift, and found he could barely walk when he got out of the aircraft, that he decided to switch gears.

"I was just absolutely knackered. I was supposed to do a re-accreditation and I said, 'No, look. If I re-accredit now that's another five years, I'll be 71. That's stupid."

"After air attack supervising, this is a breeze. You just walk around and look at the scenery."

As a fire lookout observer, Paul is on call every day of the fire season. He finds out at 5:00pm whether he's working the next day, including Christmas.

Once his daughter brought him Christmas lunch, spread it out on the mapping table. Most exclusive restaurant for miles.

In the fire tower for eight hours at a stretch (10 on a day of Total Fire Ban), Paul's become intimately attuned to the rhythms of the landscape.

The sun shining giant spotlights on the bush as the clouds rearrange.

The virgo — rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground — that creates a haze on the horizon.

The train that's visible for 15 seconds twice an hour as it crosses the aqueduct at the nearby town of Taradale.

To the north is Mount Alexander. To the south, Kyneton. South/south-east is Mount Macedon and Daylesford lies to the south-west.

Paul can even make out the brown patch beside a slice of bright green vineyard, which denotes his own small farm.

The view changes constantly.

"People say you'd get bored up here. You don't really."

The country has moods.

"It's something you feel," says Paul. "I don't know how you describe it."

It can go from placid to angry within minutes when a storm cell rolls in.

For human eyes only

In a high-tech world, fire spotting is seemingly a job that can't be replaced by computers.

It takes human eyes. And local knowledge. A sense of time.

"What I believe you look for up here isn't smoke. It's things that change."

Differentiating between dust plumes and smoke is a matter of subtlety.

"Dust is a different colour, usually. It behaves differently. Only a little bit, but differently.

"If you're not sure, you put the binoculars on it. Dust tends to be translucent, whereas smoke just reflects back at you like a solid wall.

"Because dust particles are heavier they tend to not flag out as much, they stay more contained. They'll come up and they'll be very solid and then they just go whoosh and they're gone. Whereas smoke will sort of spread out."

Smoke itself will look different depending on what's burning.

"Heavier material burns blacker. So if it's really, really white it's probably grass. If it's black, really black, it's a car or a house. And if it's forest, it's darker. The more intense the fire, the darker the smoke.

"But if it's a really hot, clean fire you mightn't see it at all because there's no smoke. A lot of people worry about lighting their house fires and that we'll see them. But a chimney fire you don't see because there's no smoke, it's clear."

Early in the season fires tend to be caused by harvesting equipment on farms. Lately there's been a lot of motor mower fires, and hay stacks.

Twice, in the early days, Paul was caught out — calling in smoke that turned out to be from a steam train.

"I actually had a few fire brigades turn out looking for smoke. It was a bit embarrassing."

Hoping for humdrum

An average day in the tower is seeing nothing.

"That's what you hope for anyway.

"When I'm having an exciting time up here, a lot of people are damn miserable."

Paul stays alert by walking laps around the outside of the cabin, 30 each hour, and doing push ups off the rail.

"If you're trying to concentrate and stare at things all day you'd just go mad."

He drinks electrolytes to stay hydrated.

There's a thermos of black, sugary tea.

A plum that he eats and then drops the pip, seeing if he can hit the roof of the out-house.

The soundtrack to Paul's day is John Williamson interspersed with the sputtering of three different radio channels.

Reports of storms and lightning strikes intensify as the afternoon wears on.

As the conversations crackle across the trunk radio, Paul instantly recognises the voices from the other towers.

"Are you receiving me alright?" a fire tower asks base, in Bendigo.

"That's Woolly in West England," explains Paul.

"No, you're very scratchy and sound like you're in a wood box," comes the deadpan response.

"Well I'm in a tin box..."

A little humour breaks up the monotony.

Paul does read a book sometimes. But it's a staccato experience. Read a paragraph, look up. Read a paragraph, look up. "So you don't want a real good book," he laughs.

Self-discipline is critical.

"You've got to make sure that you don't nod off.

"If I decided to curl up on the floor and go to sleep, I could. Provided I woke up every hour and nothing happened."

On rare occasions a wayward car will bump along the dirt track. Paul counts maybe 10 in a week. Sometimes they're taking a short cut. More rarely, they're searching for a geocache that's buried in a tree stump near the base of the tower, in a digital orienteering exercise where participants hunt for a capsule using their GPS.

"They come here and they get out of their car and start scratching around in the bush. I watch them and yell out, 'You're getting warmer'."

Like the voice of god from above.

"They get a shock because they don't think anyone's up here. And then, if they start wandering off into the scrub, I tell them, 'Nah, you've missed it, you're getting cold now.'"

Once a year there's a dance party in the forest.

"It gives me a headache. They camp down there and they play music all day. All I get up here is the bass. It goes woof woof woof all day."

Learning to look away

Mostly it's just Paul and the magpies.

"If you're not comfortable with your own company, you won't last long."

He says you don't have to be a total loner. Though physically in different locations, fire spotting is a team effort, with a network of towers working together to surveil the region.

Over the years, Paul has become no better at predicting what days are going to lead to fires.

"No, it's totally random. If you know there's going to be thunder and lightning through the area, you know you could get a lightning strike."

"But what about somebody out there with a lawnmower that starts a fire? How do you predict that?"

The hardest part of the job can be looking away from a going blaze.

"Once we've established where it is and handed that on, our responsibility is finished.

"It's very important that we don't get involved and that we look for something else because if you concentrate on that, you miss everything else.

"You've got to actually say, 'No, I'm finished with that.'"

It's a big responsibility.

But one that's tightly held. Fire spotter roles come up very rarely. In Paul's region, there have been three openings in the past decade.

First posted February 15, 2018 05:45:51

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