Douglas Hauer started working in a fire watch tower in 2005, because he was craving solitude. The job didn’t disappoint. He’s had lots of time alone since then, and is still at it as of 2022.
‘Tower people’ as they are called live and work at a fire watch tower station for three to six months in the spring and summer (the bulk of the fire season). They work seven days a week, and are often very isolated. Most fire towers in the Slave Lake Forest Area are only accessible by helicopter.
“I don’t crave human interaction,” says Hauer. “This is normal.” During COVID, “nothing changed for me,” he adds.
He knows other tower people, who spend a lot of time with people during the off season. He goes to see his grown children once in a while, but doesn’t change his life much from what he does in the summer.
Asked if he thinks he would have enjoyed being a tower person if he’d started when he was younger, Hauer says, “I’m a different person than I was at 20. At around 20, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much.”
“Typically, tower people are kind of quirky,” adds Hauer. “You’re by yourself for a large part of the year. I used to like to communicate with the ravens.”
He’d talk to the birds, and they would circle around paying attention to him. He doesn’t do this at his current watch tower, because it’s close to a lot of people.
Marten Mountain Tower is next to Marten Mountain Lookout and the trail-head for Lily Lake Trail in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, both of which are popular.
While tower people work long hours, there is also lots of daylight left to burn.
“We have our own little hobbies,” says Hauer. “My projects tend to change from year to year.”
Hauer has done woodworking, written music, and harvested birch sap, to name a few. Other tower people he knows are artists, writers, or photographers. One lady collects native plants to make tea.
Marten Mountain Tower
“This is the Taj Mahal,” Hauer says, of Marten Mountain.
It is an unusual tower for several reasons.
For one, the cupola is a bit bigger than normal. This is a small room 100 feet up the fire watch tower, where tower people spend between nine and 11 hours a day, depending on the fire danger.
The cabin where he lives has electricity, running water, and wifi. It is one of only a few road accessible towers in Slave Lake Forest Area. The others are accessible by helicopter.
Hauer’s first two years, he was at a fly-in tower. It had a generator, with enough fuel to be used two-hours a day. He bakes bread every two days, so had to schedule this and any other electrical use at that time.
The fire-finder takes up the middle of the room in the cupola. It is the first tool that tower people use to calculate the location of smoke on the landscape.
The fire-finder has a spotting scope, like a hunter would use, says Hauer.
The scope is connected to a ruler, which turns over a map to pinpoint a fire. The topographic map of the area has the watchtower dead centre. There were rings every 10 km from the centre.
The scope can be turned in any direction. North on the map always faces north, but the base of this particular fire-finder can move left and right and backward and forward.
Most fire-finders only move in one direction, but this cupola has blind spots in the corners, says Hauer. The previous tower person added a way for it to slide the other way, to fix the blind-spot problem.
When a tower person spots a fire, they get a general estimate with the fire-finder. They use the radio to call it in. Then, they put their sightings on the cross-shot map (see photo) and triangulate it with sightings from other towers.
This used to be done with string, says Hauer. However, the last person who manned this tower, figured out how to do it with a dry erase markers and a ruler.
For example, on Sunday July 24, both Hauer and the Flattop Tower noticed a fire just east of the M.D. of Lesser Slave River office at the same time. Flattop called it in first. Then they triangulated it.
This fire was easy to triangulate, as it was right next to a road, other landmarks, and the 20 km circle on the map, as Slave Lake is 20 km from Marten Mountain.
Tower people also do two daily weather reports, and the towers gather weather information (see photo).
Fire watch area
Each tower person is responsible for a radius of 40 kilometres around their tower, says Leah Lovequist, Wildfire Information Officer, for the Slave Lake Forest Area. This is 5,025 square km, which is roughly seven-and-a-half times the size of Edmonton.
Alberta has 100 manned watch towers, with 17 of these are in Slave Lake Forest Area. The Alberta towers range in height from 20 to 100 ft, but except a few on mountain tops the towers are 100 ft.
On average, tower people spot 30 per cent of wildfires in Alberta, says Lovequist. Other fires are spotted by the public or people working in the bush calling 310 and aerial patrols.