Watching for Wildfires

Odd Jobs, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on June 29, 2008
Billy Ellis has been spotting wildfires on Colorado's Front Range for 23 years.

Billy Ellis trains his binoculars on the rugged, forested terrain surrounding his 9,748-foot mountain-top lookout in Colorado's Pike National Forest, scanning the horizon in every direction for distant puffs of smoke.

"Hello, this is Devil's Head Fire Lookout calling. We're in-service," says Ellis, 75, making his morning radio report to a U.S. Forest Service dispatcher in Pueblo, Colo. "No smoke now."

Spotting smoke, which often indicates smoldering embers that can erupt into wildfires, has been Ellis' summer job at Devil's Head for the last 23 years.

Along with Margaret, 68, his wife of 46 years, Ellis is stationed at Devil's Head during the May to October fire season. The couple lives in a rustic three-room log cabin just a short walk "and 143-step climb "to the 15-by-15-foot perch that offers a panoramic view of Colorado's mountainous Front Range.

Once his daily routine begins, Ellis scans the scenic horizon, with its views of 14,110-foot Pike's Peak to the south and Denver's distant high-rises to the north, every 15 minutes, looking for wisps of smoke.

"Wildfire smokes are quite obvious," he says, noting that tended campfires never emit enough smoke to waft above the treetops visible to him.

When Ellis spots smoke he confirms its exact location with a vintage tool of the trade: an Osborne Firefinder No. 4 wheel map with sighting crosshairs. "I aim the crosshairs at smoke, call in the location and crews are dispatched quickly," he explains.

In their heyday, in the mid-20th century, more than 8,000 fire lookouts were stationed at remote locations across the country, alerting firefighting crews to blazes in the nation's forests. But with more people recreating in forests, and the use of cell phones and spotter airplanes, the number of manned fire lookouts has dwindled to about 600.

"We do have public reports of smoke, but they have trouble identifying accurate locations," says Danny Escobedo, a Forest Service fire management officer and Ellis' supervisor. "Billy can spot fires precisely and his early detections have been invaluable."

Ellis spots between 30 and 60 wildfires during a typical season, and has reported hundreds since he began work at Devil's Head in 1984. "With dry conditions and lightning, things get busy fast," he says. "I've spotted 12 in a matter of minutes."

While memories of consecutive seasons tend to blend, Ellis has vivid recollections of the infamous Big Hayman Fire of 2002. "Over 138,000 acres burned and it was out of control for six weeks," he says, recalling Colorado's largest wildfire. "It burned that ridge," Ellis adds, pointing to an area less than a mile away where standing dead trees bear testament to the fire's wrath. "We were minutes from being evacuated ourselves."

Devil's Head Fire Lookout was built in 1951 by 100 soldiers and 72 mules from the U.S. Army Post in Fort Carson, Colo., and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1.4-mile trail that leads to the lookout is popular with weekend hikers, giving Ellis the unofficial role as a goodwill ambassador for the Forest Service.

"We get 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year, from all over the world," he says with a hint of pride. Perhaps the epitome of a friendly, good-humored forest ranger with his wide-brim hat, creaseless uniform and trimmed white beard, Ellis is just as enthusiastic about greeting hikers as he is about spotting fires. Though he's officially retired and travels the country with Margaret during the off-season, he cherishes his summers at Devil's Head Fire Lookout.

"We'll keep coming up here for years, God willing," he says. "The thrill of getting credit to be the first to spot smoke is wonderful. And the views aren't bad, either."