Watcher Eagle-Eyes Flames From Tower The number of active fire lookouts has dwindled to fewer than 1,000 over the past 70 years, but fire tower watcher Margee Kelly maintains her perch on Sequoia National Monument. Kelly carries a torch for the job she's done for 21 fire seasons.
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Watcher Eagle-Eyes Flames From Tower

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Watcher Eagle-Eyes Flames From Tower

Watcher Eagle-Eyes Flames From Tower

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One of the ways that California tries to prevent fires is by keeping an eye on wilderness area. The state's fire watchers look out for things like bolts of lightning, smoldering trees. KQED's Sasha Khokha recently visited a fire watch tower in central California. It's about 8,000 feet high with terrifying drop-offs on either side.

SASHA KHOKHA: It's a two-mile hike up switchbacks and a climb up 188 wooden stairs to get to Margee Kelly's fire tower in Giant Sequoia National Monument. But Kelly, a 55-year-old grandmother, is tough enough to do it with a mountain bike.

Ms. MARGEE KELLY (Fire Watcher, Needles Fire Lookout, Giant Sequoia National Monument): Isn't it great? I love it.

KHOKHA: She's lean and blond, and constantly wears polarized sunglasses to help her spot smoke. In the Needles Fire Tower, she's braved earthquakes, lightning strikes, and sometimes 80 fires in a season. The view through her tower windows is breathtaking. Kelly can scan a 360-degree panorama that includes Mount Whitney and the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.

Ms. KELLY: The trees - here comes my weather.

(Soundbite of radio communication)

Unidentified Man: For the North Sequoia National Forest - high pressure over the region will keep very warm and dry conditions across the district through at least Friday.

KHOKHA: Kelly lives six months a year in this tidy 14-by-14-foot room. A plush double bed takes up a third of the space. And then there's a tiny stove and oven, a propane refrigerator, and a water crock for drinking and washing. A helicopter flies in periodically to bring supplies and empty out the porta-potty. Her radio console dominates the center of the room. On this day, as 23 mile an hour winds start to pick up and rattle the windows, another lookout calls in a report of a fire near a camp ground.

(Soundbite of radio beeping)

Ms. KELLY: Fire, fire, fire. That's what that means. Three tones is fire.

Unidentified Man #1: All units (unintelligible). Report of a vegetation fire (unintelligible), in lake.

KHOKHA: Kelly spends most of her time listening to radio traffic, peering through binoculars and plotting fires on a huge circular map covered by a glass disc.

Ms. KELLY: It's hard to see what a fire's doing when you're on the ground, and its right in front of you. So they rely on us to give them the big picture. You know, if they're in a helicopter they've got the big picture, but flight time's expensive. Their only in the air when they have to be.

KHOKHA: This is Kelly's 21st season up in this tiny tower. She has no cell phone, no electricity, but she says she's never lonely.

Ms. KELLY: I don't understand the concept. I would think that a person that's lonely is - has a complete lack of imagination. And I don't, I can entertain myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLY: Hello refrigerator. What do you want to eat today, Margaret? I don't know. What would you like to feed me?

KHOKHA: Some days she'll see no one but a few Peregrine Falcons.

Ms. KELLY: He was flying around checking me out. Their like, what are you, what are you doing there? Are you a bird? Yeah, is that your nest? Cool nest.

KHOKHA: And then there are visitors. She bakes chocolate chip cookies for the rock climbers who come to scale the famous pinnacles next to the tower. Her grandkids come and stay for a week each year, and about 1000 tourists hike up each season to see her. Some of these tourists make her nervous when they press their noses to the glass and watch her cook her lunch.

Ms. KELLY: The monkey behind the glass, "oo, oo, oo." Watch her eat. People are so unaware that you can live like this. That I'll actually get asked, what do you eat? And I'll say, dirt and needles.

KHOKHA: But Kelly doesn't mind answering most questions from visitors.

Ms. KELLY: I had a little girl ask me once, wasn't I afraid out here. I can't think of anything that makes me afraid, other than people. They can get pretty weird, but - I said, are you afraid? She said, well, yeah, we just had a drive-by shooting. And I said, honey, I guarantee you, I've never had a drive-by shooting.

KHOKHA: What she does worry about though, are lightning strikes. She spends most of her day perched atop a lightning stool, a wooden platform with glass feet that helps deflect electric current.

Ms. KELLY: Once I see a storm now, I get on the stool. Ever since the antenna was vaporized because it's important we don't get fried.

KHOKHA: Kelly knows her unique job may not be around forever. In the 1930's there were an estimated 9000 active fire lookouts nationwide. Now there are less than 1000. And as fire managers face tough budget choices, there's talk of installing cameras to watch fires instead. But Margee Kelly believes, there's no substitute for the human eye. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

COHEN: If you would like to see what the view looks like from that fire tower, go to our website. It's

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: An interview on the road about cell-phones and driver safety, that story coming up when Day to Day continues.

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