Sedona Westerners in the Red Rock News

October 16, 2009

Apache Maid Lookout and USFS Fire Crew


by Joan Scott

Have you been up, or inside a Forest Service fire watchtower? Have you wondered how the watch system operates and what lookouts do? The first Sedona Westerners hike of the season, Sept. 9, was a Trackers field trip with short hike to the Apache Maid Fire Tower. (A Tracker event is scheduled approximately twice a month for an educationally focused experience.) Eight Westerners signed on, including volunteer lookout Mickey Gershtenson, driving north on I-17 to the Stoneman Lake exit, and bouncing eight miles on the dirt access roads to the tower. Rick Zabor of Friends of the Forest, and Coordinator of Volunteers for the fire tower (and a fire lookout himself) was our guide for the day, providing background, and considerable know-how. He had arranged for Olivia Lorge, Fire prevention Officer for the jointly-administered Coconino and Prescott Fire District to join us, and Olivia had arranged for a colleague, Anthony Montiel, to bring James Brooks, 86 years young, recently retired from 14 years as a lookout and trainer of other volunteers. Brooks was also an area rancher for many years

Joan Scott's Motley Group of Hikers. Photo by Alan Gore.

Though one can drive right to the tower base, the Trackers hiked the last two miles, enjoying superlative views of the Sedona area landforms, the valley and mountains to the south, and the old ranch and forest land below. Rick led the way and Peter Baenziger “tail-gated.” At the tower base, Olivia, who has done most of the fire crew jobs herself before attaining her current position, oriented us to the work of the Fire District, and explained the truly awe-inspiring work of the various crews used for different aspects of fighting a fire on the ground, and from the air.

Some facts: The tower, built in 1961, with 40 steps to the deck, is a 12x12 enclosed box, the upper half of which is glass. It is considered “luxurious” as towers go, with two bunks, a propane stove, fridge, and sink. There are 120 fire watchtowers in AZ; 65 are currently active. (One can rent an inactive tower overnight. Contact the Forest Service for info.) Currently there are eight volunteers for this tower and Mingus Mountain tower in the Prescott National Forest. Until this year volunteers were here only on weekends except during extreme risk conditions. Firewatchers “triangulate” fire locations with other towers, for aid of the ground crews and air support, and report all data and observations to a dispatcher in Flagstaff. They routinely report weather and rain gauge date to Flagstaff. During lightning storms, watchers are expected to sit in an uncomfortable old tall all-wood “lightning chair,” for safety. Whether they do is a contest of gutsiness and comfort versus prudence!

Rick shared the history of the Osbourne Fire Finder, a rotating disk with a sighting instrument on it, which takes up the center of the “room.” James and Rick, with Mickey, demonstrated, and explained how the large location map that James created is used in conjunction with it. James entertained about his years at the tower, sharing a couple of probable “tallish tales” for the group’s benefit. While the tower never received a lightning strike while he was there, a nearby rock outcrop was, and “rocks splattered all over the place!”

How do fire lookouts spend their time between routine duties? The consensus is “It is 99% boredom and 1% being terrified!” Rick bird-watches. Some bring reading, or knitting, or just keep looking for other watchers. It’s a job for calm lovers of solitude, wind and clouds and large views.

Rick and others had warned of dangerously slippery dirt road conditions with rain. With a large storm cell approaching, Tracker Hike Boss and chief worrier, Joan Scott, “suggested” the group forego the usual lunch break, and “eat while walking” down the mountain. Rain began as the cars were reached, aborting a stop at the old Apache Maid Ranch, and chased the group to the pavement.

"The Westerners always welcome new members! If you are interested in joining the club, log onto our website You may also join by attending the next monthly meeting which will be on Thursday, November 12, beginning at 7 p.m., at the Jewish Synagogue and Community Center."