Moffat County firewatcher keeps eyes on the horizon
August 7, 2010
In August 2005, Daniel Hazen awoke in the middle of the night surrounded by lightning.
Hazen, 60, a firewatcher and park ranger for the National Park Service, had been on the job for about a month-and-a-half at the time at his lookout tower on the eastern border of Dinosaur National Monument.
A thunderstorm had been forming before Hazen crawled into bed that night in the 225-square-foot wildfire lookout tower, which doubles as his living quarters during the summer.
Hazen said he was "surrounded by clouds and flashes of light," and the 35-foot tower was "shaking and rocking."
"It is just really impressive to see these sheets of rain and sheets of hale and lightning coming closer and closer," he said. "You have the tower shaking from the winds. I have clocked 80 mile per hour winds up here."
The storm was one of many Hazen would experience over the next five summers living in the fire lookout tower located several miles from the nearest town, he said.
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"It was scary the first year," he said. "But, I have been through those storms and the tower doesn't fall down."
Each summer, Hazen, a Bailey resident, leaves his temporary work as a respiratory therapist and prepares to live in the lookout tower, perched on top of Zenobia Peak. Hazen lives on the peak, which has an elevation of about 9,000 feet, from the middle of May to the end of September.
He is tasked with scanning the vast area in his line of sight for wildfires and reporting them to stations in Craig or Vernal, Utah in hopes of alerting firefighters to them before they spread further, he said.
Hazen also spends much of his time monitoring storms, clouds and lightning strikes, he said.
"If we see a bunch of lightning strikes over here, we are going to kind of focus on that area the next day, or for the next week even," he said.
He also helps firefighters find wildfires he has reported and often notifies firefighting crews of coming shifts in wind and weather, he said.
Hazen is one of five paid firewatchers in Colorado and one of about 300 left in the U.S., he said.
At the beginning of the1900s, there were thousands of firewatchers, he said. Airplanes, satellites and unmanned camera systems, among other things, have made the profession somewhat rare, he said.
"There is a little bit of a romantic notion of the lonely outpost with the lonely lookout sitting on top of a mountain," he said. "I don't know how special that is, but it is a great job."
Job fits 'right in'
Hazen was born in Manchester, N.H., and moved around the country as a youth. He was a backpacker for about 30 years.
While backpacking, he learned how to read maps and navigate by compass.
In 1999, Hazen became a Ham Radio operator and later received his firefighter 2 certification, a basic wildland firefighter qualification, he said.
"I had a whole bunch of hobbies and skills that just kind of fit right in," said Hazen, who has never been married and has no children.
Hazen found the firewatcher job posted on the Internet and applied, he said.
"I figured that I had very little chance of getting it," he said. "I just figured there would be thousands and thousands of applicants and I wouldn't have a chance."
But since getting the job, Hazen said the profession suits him well.
"(I'm) kind of a loner," he said. "I would not be one of those people that would go crazy up in a lonely fire tower."
Hazen will usually spend 10 days on the job and four days off, but recently worked a six-week period with three days off, he said.
His standard fire watching hours are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but Hazen usually clocks in if lightning is in the area or he spots smoke.
"It's hard not to look out the window whether you are on duty or not," he said. "If I wake up and I see a smoke down in the Greystone area, I call it into dispatch and I'm on duty."
Hazen works with another firewatcher located on top of Round Top Peak about 12 miles south of his tower, he said. The two sometimes work together, but usually have staggered days off.
"The basic routine is we get up, we look out the window and we look for smoke," he said.
Hazen said he usually reports between five and 18 wildfires per year. He has reported 11 fires so far this year, all caused by lightning.
Hazen reports fires in Colorado to the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit in Craig, and fires in Utah to the Bureau of Land Management office in Vernal.
Lynn Barclay, a fire mitigation/education specialist for the BLM in Craig, said Moffat County has one of the highest wildfire occurrence rates in the state and has been in the top 10 locations in the country in previous years.
From his post, Hazen said he can see 100 miles east to the ski slopes of Steamboat Springs and about 50 miles to Marsh Peak in the west. He can also see Pine Butte 80 miles to the north and Cathedral Bluffs located 40 miles to the south, he added.
To spot a fire, Hazen said he simply looks for a "little white column that looks out of place."
"It is not like I know this country like the back of my hand, and it is not that I know it so perfectly, but I know it well enough," he said. "I'll see something (and say) 'That's not right, what is it?'"
After spotting a fire, Hazen will use an Osborne Fire Finder, a piece of equipment similar to a surveyor's sextant oriented to true north, to get the bearings and direction of the fire.
He then uses a combination of estimates, based on his knowledge of the land, and the many maps hanging from the ceiling to determine the fire's distance from the tower and location.
"Having been here six years, I know a lot of the terrain, but there is a lot I don't know," he said. "It is just such a huge area."
When Hazen sees a fire, he said he gets a "little bit of adrenaline."
"I want to call it in precisely and I want to catch it early," he said. "The longer it goes un-reported, the bigger it can get which can make it harder and more dangerous to fight."
'Solitude is nice'
Despite being located hundreds of miles from a major city and having limited access to society for days, Hazen said he is not completely isolated.
To keep his mind occupied, Hazen listens to Spanish tapes and his shortwave radio. He also reads, does household chores and uses his laptop computer, although it has no Internet connection.
He also has a 4-inch, black and white television that he watches about an hour per day, especially shows like NBC's "The Office."
In past years, he has used amateur radio communication to talk with people in New Zealand and Australia.
Hazen lives without a refrigerator or traditional shower. His shelves are lined with powdered milk, instant coffee, boxed water and canned and dried foods. He has access to a stove in the tower and an outhouse is located a few feet from the base of the tower.
Hazen has always looked to choose his own direction, he said, and being a firewatcher affords him that opportunity.
"When you are in the city, at a regular job, dealing with people on a constant basis, you are always sort of adjusting yourself, adapting, conforming," he said. "Up here, it is a little bit … less restrictive."
And after six years, the occupation, scenery and expansive views continue to appeal to him.
"It's beautiful country," he said. "Some people are actually shocked that I'm actually getting paid to be up here."
For Hazen, "the solitude is nice."
"But, I really like the idea that I am helping to keep firefighters safe," he said.
Hazen is not sure when he will be ready to step away from the job and the tower.
"At one point I was thinking I wanted to do it for five years and we'll see what happens," he said. "Now, I have been here six years and … I'm thinking maybe I'll do it 10 years and see what happens."