A Summer Ritual: All Along the Fire Tower

Jeanne Duhem, a fire lookout in the El Dorado National Forest in northern California, has been watching for fires every summer for 27 years. After World War II, the U.S. Forest Service operated 600 lookout towers in California. Now, only 55 are staffed. Melissa Block talks with Duhem.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A few hundred miles to the north of the Day Fire, Jeanne Duhem has her eyes peeled for smoke. For the 28 years she's spent her summers as a fire lookout in the El Dorado National Forest, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. From May through October, Duhem spends her days high up in an observation tower.

Her living and working quarters are just 14 feet wide by 14 feet long, with windowed walls providing panoramic views of some beautiful country. Jeanne Duhem spoke with us from her post today and she described a fire she spotted in 1979, her first year on the job.

Ms. JEANNE DUHEM (Fire lookout): The (unintelligible) fire started and I had first call on it. And I saw the little smoke and I called it in. And that fire turned out to be a really big huge fire and it burned for 10 days, and there was like ashes landing on me. And I saw an eagle just floating upstream with its head hanging down and I knew that this - this was a female eagle - she had a nest with babies in it that got burnt up. And I was just so distraught over that I couldn't stop crying.

And then the fire turned and came north and I could see the trees exploding. You know, the swirl of flame would come around them and then just blow them up out of the ground and explode them. And it was just incredible to see that. And that's when I decided that I have to be a lookout.

BLOCK: That was your very first season.

Ms. DUHEM: Yeah. And that did it. It was awesome.

BLOCK: And 28 years later, you're still there.

Ms. DUHEM: I'm still doing it.

BLOCK: What for you, is the appeal of being up there? For a lot of people, I think, it would seem like a lonely life. But you obviously like it, you've been doing it for 28 years now.

Ms. DUHEM: Yes. I enjoy the solitude and I am self-supervised, self-disciplined - so the loneliness doesn't really affect me.

BLOCK: Do you have visitors?

Ms. DUHEM: Yeah, people can come up.

BLOCK: Would these be, you know, hikers coming by just wanting to take a little...?

Ms. DUHEM: Yeah, hikers, dirt bikers, just forest visitors in general.

BLOCK: You're how high up in the air in that tower?

Ms. DUHEM: Sixty feet.

BLOCK: Sixty feet. And what's it like to be 60 feet up and watch a big storm come in?

Ms. DUHEM: Oh, that's pretty good, because when - if the winds come hard enough the tower will shake and it's kind of like a little earthquake that lasts for hours. And when the lightning happens it's quite thrilling. It's exciting. When it comes within a couple of miles, I have a stool that I stand on with glass insulators on the feet and that keeps me from getting fried.

BLOCK: And would you be marking where those lightning hits are in case something...

Ms. DUHEM: Yeah, I try to keep a list, because they happen so fast. It's pretty active, and your hair's standing straight out from your body because the electricity's so close in the air.

BLOCK: Wow.

Ms. DUHEM: Yeah. It's really something.

BLOCK: What's the longest you've had to stand on that stool during a storm?

Ms. DUHEM: Oh, I don't know, a couple of hours. You can jump down and jump back up and sometimes those storms last quite a while.

BLOCK: Well, it must get a little tiresome up on that stool for that long.

Ms. DUHEM: You don't have time to think about that, the electricity keeps you energized.

BLOCK: Wow, but those hits could be the start of another fire.

Ms. DUHEM: Absolutely. They've done it lots of times. I've seen them do it.

BLOCK: Well, Jeanne Duhem, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

Ms. DUHEM: All righty.

BLOCK: Take good care.

Ms. DUHEM: Ok. You too. Bye-bye.

BLOCK: Jeanne Duhem works as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service in the El Dorado National Forest in northern California. And the answer to the frequently asked question is: the bathroom is at the bottom of the tower.

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