DOLORES – Various birds zip and dive around the Benchmark Lookout fire tower as Rick Freimuth scans the horizon with binoculars for any sign of wildfire smoke.
His panoramic view encompasses the surrounding foothills and peaks of the San Juan Mountains and stretches to Mesa Verde, the Dolores River Canyon rim and the Abajo and La Sal mountain ranges in Utah.
Farther in the distance, Monument Valley and the Carrizo Mountains on the Navajo Reservation can be seen.
“I look for smoke, anything different or out of place,” Freimuth says. “It’s a fantastic view of it all.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Benchmark Lookout Tower, located in the San Juan National Forest north of Dolores. The 42-foot-high tower sits at 9,262 feet elevation on a high ridge next to Glade Mountain.
It is one of six fire lookout towers staffed in Colorado out of 14 that are still standing.
There were once 8,000 fire lookouts across the U.S. Now, just 2,500 remain and only about 400 are staffed, including employees and volunteers, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
Benchmark is relied on by the San Juan National Forest and surrounding land agencies to spot and monitor new fires to assist firefighters on the ground.
Most new fires spotted are 35 to 50 miles away, but on a clear day, they can be seen more than 70 miles away.
“The early detection from a lookout provides information quickly on the staffing needs of a wildfire,” said Ranger Derek Padilla of the forest’s Dolores District. “It allows for a faster decision time and a faster response for suppression if needed.”
Benchmark can call in new fires in forest, Bureau of Land Management and Ute Mountain Ute lands as well as Mesa Verde National Park, the Uncompahgre Plateau and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Last year, the tower reported a new fire in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Since 2018, Freimuth has called in 74 smoke reports, including about five in Utah.
Besides watching for fires, Freimuth monitors weather and lightning and informs firefighters about fire behavior, and wind and storm patterns.
“Relaying information such as sudden changes in wind direction is critical for firefighter safety,” Freimuth said. “I can see cell buildup and let them know it is coming. If the wind picks up, I can notify firefighters down in a canyon who may not know about it.”
From his vantage point, he also watches for spot fires, ember showers and flare-ups, then phones or radios in the information. He may text firefighters photos of storms and fire conditions.
Freimuth uses an Osborne Fire Finder and detailed maps to determine the GPS coordinates of a new fire, then relays the information to dispatch. He partners with the lookout tower at Mesa Verde National Park to help pinpoint and triangulate fire locations.
Freimuth has monitored and provided information on numerous fires, including the Plateau, Burro, Horse Park, Doe Canyon and Yellow Jacket fires. He helps to monitor prescribed burns as well.
“I am the eyes up here for fire weather and fire behavior,” he said.
The real-time weather and fire information of a lookout is essential, Padilla said.
“That long-distance view of storms approaching is needed information. Changes in wind direction can suddenly cause the fire to come right at you,” Padilla said. “With Rick’s observations, we can change tactics or take cover.”
Reporting changes in smoke direction and type also indicates how the fire may behave in the coming hours. For example, white smoke indicates less intensity and lighter fuels, and thick black smoke indicates higher intensity in heavy fuels.
A fire’s behavior also lets firefighters know about intense activity such as crowning and tree torching. On the Burro Fire, Freimuth plotted and called in a spot fire that flared to the north.
Every day, Freimuth is provided with maps of recent lightning strikes. He double-checks those areas for signs of smoke and fire. Wherever lightning is observed, the location is closely watched as they can cause “sleeper fires” that flare up days later.
Benchmark Lookout was built in 1970 to replace Glade Mountain Lookout. The tower includes a 14-by-14-foot cab enclosed in thick windows. An outdoor catwalk goes around the cab.
New solar panels were recently installed, along with a rooftop camera that is monitored when lookouts have days off.
Life in the fire lookout is a combination of peaceful quiet punctuated by the excitement of a new line of smoke, heavy storms and mountain lions and bears wandering by.
Freimuth’s wife, Linda, accompanies him on lookout duty, and watches for new smoke lines. The couple live in the lookout, which has a bed and kitchen. There is an outhouse on the ground next to the tower.
“When you first see a line of smoke, it is a rush because that is why we are here,” Rick Freimuth said. “Early detection allows small fires to stay small. When fire officials call for information about a fire, we can provide that instantly.”
The couple have learned to distinguish smoke from dust and water vapor. What looks like smoke on the horizon might be the gravel pit near Mancos.
Their perch is often engulfed in storms full of lightning, rain and hail. The front-row seat is spectacular, they said.
“It just roars – the lightning and the reflection on the windows is amazing,” Rick says. “Winds have reached 57 mph.”
They are careful not to touch anything metal, although everything is grounded.
The ridge where Benchmark sits is a magnet for storms. They roll the nearby desert, and rise and build into the mountains.
“They go haywire right here. It’s pretty exciting to watch as they approach, hit us, and we watch it leave,” Freimuth said.
Patience, meticulous scanning, reliable communications and careful record-keeping are qualities of fire lookouts.
Linda Freimuth spins wool to pass the time, and they both do a lot of reading and journal writing between frequent scans with the binoculars. As a project, Linda recently installed a snow-depth post that can be monitored by the new camera.
Wildlife watching is also a fun hobby for lookouts.
The Freimuths have seen bears, mountain lions and deer. Flying around them are red-tailed hawks, kestrels, peregrine falcons, ravens, purple martins, hummingbirds and other species.
“We have such an appreciation for the forest, and the work we do,” Linda said. “When we find that smoke, we put to work firefighters who have been training for that.”
Benchmark also is a point of contact between the San Juan National Forest and the public. Visitors are welcome when the lookout is staffed, and can learn about its functions and the area.
However, because of the ongoing pandemic, Benchmark Lookout currently is closed to the public.
The San Juan National Forest sees the value in keeping Benchmark staffed, Padilla said.
Human eyes have advantages over other technology such as planes, satellites and cameras, he said.
“A recon flight over the forest is a good tool but only lasts a couple of hours. With the lookout, they are there watching all day,” Padilla said.
Cameras and satellite images are also good tools to monitor fires, but the data need a person to interpret the screen, and that’s not always possible. Humans can adapt to the situation, and lookouts have knowledge of experience to draw on.
Benchmark’s budget of about $30,000 per year makes it a good value for the return of fire management and firefighter safety, Padilla said.
The Freimuths are done for the year and are looking forward to coming back next year.
“We are the zealots of fire lookouts,” Freimuth said.