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Pressure's on for Flagstaff-area fire tower watchers during extreme fire danger

From the windows that ring her bed, Pam Strong can see for miles. She can spot the Grand Canyon’s north rim, the whale-shaped mound of Mormon Mountain and past the San Francisco Peaks to the roundish nub of Kendrick Peak.

As the O’Leary Peak fire lookout, Strong’s home for the summer is a 14-by-14-foot metal cabin atop a 30-foot tower that itself is perched on O’Leary Peak.

It is one of 10 staffed fire lookout towers scattered across the Coconino National Forest, two of which straddle the boundary of the Kaibab National Forest.

Together, the lookouts play a unique and valuable role on the forest, spokesman George Jozens said. More experienced than the general public and more perceptive than automated cameras, they are able to pick up the exact shade of smoke, for example, which is crucial to determining the difference between a wildfire and a big campfire, Jozens said.

And their technique of cross-locating a column of smoke combined with a well-honed knowledge of the roads, landmarks and topography of an area are key to guiding firefighters directly to the fire’s source.

“I just don’t think you can replace the human factor that’s needed,” Jozens said.

This year, with the forest at near-record dryness and fire danger at extreme levels, these lookouts play an especially crucial role in scanning the forest, spotting and then precisely locating even small wisps of smoke that could quickly explode into a catastrophic wildfire.

They are well aware of the gravity of their work.

“Everybody came up on edge,” said Guy Groeber, who is in his third year as lookout at the East Pocket fire tower at the end of Woody Mountain Road. “Everybody knows it’s a high fire danger so we’re really keeping an eye on things.”

Strong, too, who is in her fourth year as a lookout, said the dryness is on her mind.

“It’s scary because I’ve never worked under these conditions. I worry about, ‘Am I being alert enough?” she said.

Low tech

Fancy technology is largely absent from the Coconino’s fire lookout towers. Groeber uses a GPS, but Strong said a pair of binoculars are her only aid in fire spotting.

Both do a full 360-degree scan of the horizon every five to 10 minutes and use binoculars to do a more detailed check every hour.

Since the Forest Service closed six large areas of the Coconino in late May, Groeber said he has recorded hardly any fire or smoke sightings. That’s a good thing, but it also means he has to work harder to avoid getting complacent, he said.

Both Groeber and Strong have strategies for quickly recognizing a fire’s location in relation to landmarks, roads and other topography. Strong studies labeled panoramic pictures of the area and has a stack of notecards filled with notes on the distances between the tower and various landmarks that she uses to quiz herself.

Groeber used a dry erase marker to sketch mountains and other features on the tower’s windows so he can easily identify the nearest landmarks when he spots smoke.

All the lookouts use an Osborne Firefinder, an instrument dating back about a century and used to pinpoint the exact location of a fire.

It has a large metal ring marked with the 360 degrees of a circle, all aligned with the cardinal directions. Inside the ring is a map with the location of the lookout at the center. The user moves a viewfinder around the circular ring until the fire’s smoke is lined up in its crosshairs, then reports back on the corresponding compass degree.

Once multiple lookouts lock in on a smoke sighting, staff at Forest Service dispatch can pinpoint the location of the fire by tracking where those compass bearings intersect.

As for other duties, the lookouts have to be alert to radio traffic, and at the beginning of each shift they call in wind speed and 24-hour precipitation observations.

Keeping busy

The lookouts’ hours can be long. This time of year when conditions are dry Groeber said he starts at 8 a.m. and doesn’t get let go until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.

To pass the time between observations, he said he reads a lot -- anything that isn’t fiction -- and weaves paracord tightly together to create bullwhips that he gives out to all of the Forest Service patrols. He kept one for himself that he said he’ll crack every once in a while to scare away cows or annoying dogs.

On one of his windows Groeber has scribbled a list of fires below the names of nearby lookouts, including Strong. It’s part of an ongoing game between four of them, he said. Someone gets a point when they’re the first to call in a verified smoke sighting to dispatch.

With nowhere to go, the job is inherently very sedentary and Groeber admitted that he does get stir crazy. When that happens, he’ll walk circles around the small inside room and the balcony outside, he said.

“It teaches you patience,” he said of the job.

Strong said she, too, spends a lot of her time reading and will sometimes tap into a weak internet signal to email friends and family. She also keeps a journal.

Both said they enjoy having visitors and getting to talk to them about spotting fires, local landmarks or whatever else sparks their curiosity. So far this season, Strong has recorded 460 visitors.

Day in the life

Strong, who lives in the cab, the name for the room at the top of the tower, said she wakes up around 6 a.m. thanks to sunlight that streams through the big, unshaded windows. After coffee and breakfast she makes the bed and goes to her checklist of “things to do to keep me healthy,” she said. Bone broth, fish oil and drinking enough water are all items on the list. She also does stretching, tai chi and yoga in the mornings. At noon, she goes up and down the tower’s three flights of stairs six times, which keeps her from wanting to doze off in the afternoon, she said.

For his part, Groeber lives in a small cargo trailer at the base of his tower. He has a TV, bed and a shower stall where he uses a 7-quart saucepan, 1-liter soda bottle with a hole in it and a dish rag to rinse off, he said.

Both have a small stove, sink and refrigerator in the cab to cook meals during the day.

At night and on his days off, Groeber said he rides his motorcycle into Flagstaff or cruises around the dirt roads that wind through the forest at the edge of the Mogollon Rim.

Long hours and sometimes cramped-feeling quarters aside, Groeber realizes he has many people’s dream job.

“I get paid to sit back in the woods and camp for five months,” he said. “You can't beat that."

Strong, too, fully appreciates the perks of the lookout position. A former addiction counselor, she no longer has to tell people how to live their lives and she gets outdoors every day.

“It’s a penthouse,” she said of her high-up abode. “It’s a penthouse with a 360-degree view.”

Emery Cowan / Emery Cowan  

Pam Strong, who is the fire lookout at the O'Leary tower, uses photos labeled with the names of nearby landmarks to help learn the lay of the land and better describe the location of fires when she does spot them. 

Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Guy Groeber shows off an Osborne Firefinder Thursday afternoon at the East Pocket Lookout Tower at the end of Woody Mountain Road. This is Groeber's third season as a lookout. In between regular scans of the horizon, Groeber reads, does laps around the lookout's outside balcony and weaves bull whips. 

Hit the trail: Rogers Lake, Soldiers Trail now linked

First in the multi-day series

Editor's note: Although major parts of four national forests in northern Arizona are closed to the public, there are still plenty of places to hike and bike.  Here are two destinations linked by a new trail and close to Flagstaff: 

 Rogers Lake

This ephemeral wetland is nearly dry this time of year but the views of the peaks are year-round, as are the wildlife (and cattle).

Since 2011, Coconino County has been putting in recreation improvements on the eastern side of the lake. Cyclists can now get off dusty Woody Mountain Road and up into the pines above the lake, then connect to the Soldiers Trail at Fort Tuthill via the new Rogers Trail.

The first pulloff parking is about a mile past the first view of the lake on Woody Mountain Road. There's a viewing platform with telescopes, and down below the 2-Spot Trail follows an old raised railroad bed right at the edge of the marsh.  We usually untrailer the bikes here and head south on the trail, then come back on the other side of the road as the trail climbs into the pines.

For those wanting a more strenuous workout, the Gold Digger Trail leaves the road at both ends of the 2-Spot Trail and climbs toward the Woody Mountain lookout tower. It crosses several two-track forest roads on the way up to handsome ramada overlooking the lake that diverts rainwater from its roof for birds, bats and small mammals.

The 5-mile Rogers Trail veers off Gold Digger south of the ramada and wraps around the south flank of Woody Mountain on its down to the Arboretum. From there, it heads east along Sinclair Wash before intercepting the Loop Trail, which itself intersects the Soldiers Trail.

The county has loaded good maps of the Rogers Lake trails on its Parks and Recreation website, but printing out some copies to avoid confusion at several junctions is a good idea, especially where cell service is spotty.

    --Randy Wilson 



 Soldiers Trail

With an easy-to-access trailhead and a range of route options, Soldiers Trail at Fort Tuthill County Park is ideal for a quick jaunt before or after work as well as a longer weekend adventure. The full 5.5-mile loop is unique in offering a behind-the-scenes look at the county park’s range of amenities as it winds through the forested outskirts of the property. Those who complete the whole trail will get a peek at the adventure ropes course, see the equestrian training jumps up close and catch a view of the Pepsi Amphitheater stage.

On a Saturday afternoon, when these activities are busy with horses, festival-goers and adventurers, they offer plenty of free trailside entertainment.

For those seeking more solitude, though, the trail also winds through quieter stretches of forest on the northwest part of the county park. In the spring and summer, gambel oak brightens up the ponderosa pine-dominated forest.

Along the way, trailgoers can also see firsthand the effects of forest thinning, as much of the forest in the county park was mechanically thinned last year. Look for grasses and other new plants sprouting where the forest has been opened up.

Soldiers Trail itself covers rolling terrain, making it ideal for mountain bikers, trail runners or hikers. The route can be made shorter or longer by taking a cutoff at the Bridge Trail, which features more varied, rocky terrain, or turning onto the Highlands Trail that makes a second, smaller loop. The trails are mostly well marked with signs, though the recent logging does create some confusing intersections, so carry a map or take a picture of the one at the trailhead if needed.

Another bonus is that the Soldiers Trail connects with the Rogers Lake Natural Area via the 5.4-mile Rogers Trail, allowing more ambitious adventurers to extend their trip even farther.

--Emery Cowan

top story
City of Flagstaff cancels July 4th fireworks due to extreme fire danger

The city of Flagstaff will not be hosting a fireworks display on July 4 this year due to extreme fire danger.

Flagstaff is currently under Stage 3 Fire Restrictions, a designation that prohibits the use and sale of consumer grade fireworks.

Instead, the city has partnered with The Oakmont, a restaurant in Country Club, to host the fourth annual Lights on the Lawn Fourth of July Celebration from 3- 9 p.m. 

Festivities will include water slides, obstacle courses, a maze, a mechanical bull, local food vendors, beer garden, and a musical performance by national recording artists J Michael Harter and Zona Road. Parking for the event will be located at the Continental Driving Range.

Other events on the Fourth include two footraces, a parade, and a free outdoor concert. 

The city asks that people continue to protect the community and forests by following all bans, restrictions and refraining from the use of fireworks.

City spokeswoman Claire Harper said Friday the city had not purchased the fireworks before deciding to cancel the display.

Fireworks shows also have been canceled in Williams and Cave Creek.

The last time Flagstaff canceled fireworks was in 2010, when the displays were shot high into the air.  The next year, the city went to a low-level fireworks show, first in the parking lot of the Flagstaff Mall, then returning to Country Club.

The city came close to canceling the show in 2013 when a severe lightning storm was forecast to move in over Country Club right during the show.  Instead, the fire marshal ordered an early start, much to the disappointment of thousands who were still en route to Country Club just as the grand finale went off.  

Police: Backup driver in fatal Uber crash was distracted

PHOENIX (AP) — The human backup driver in an autonomous Uber SUV was streaming the television show "The Voice" on her phone and looking downward just before fatally striking a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix, according to a police report.

The 300-page report released Thursday night by police in Tempe revealed that driver Rafaela Vasquez had been streaming the musical talent show via Hulu in the 43 minutes before the March 18 crash that killed Elaine Herzberg as she crossed a darkened road outside the lines of a crosswalk. The report said the crash, which marks the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle, wouldn't have happened had the driver not been distracted.

Dash camera video shows Vasquez was looking down near her right knee for four or five seconds before the crash. She looked up a half second before striking Herzberg as the Volvo was traveling about 44 miles per hour. Vasquez told police Herzberg "came out of nowhere" and that she didn't see her prior to the collision. But officers calculated that had Vasquez been paying attention, she could have reacted 143 feet before impact and brought the SUV to a stop about 42.6 feet before hitting Herzberg.

"This crash would not have occurred if Vasquez would have been monitoring the vehicle and roadway conditions and was not distracted," the report stated.

Tempe police are looking at a vehicular manslaughter charge in the crash, according to a March 19 affidavit filed to get a search warrant for audio, video and data stored in the Uber SUV. 

The detective seeking the warrant, identified as J. Barutha, wrote that based on information from the vehicular homicide unit, "it is believed that the crime of vehicular manslaughter has occurred and that evidence of this offense is currently located in a 2017 Grey Volvo XC-90."

A previously released video of the crash showed Vasquez looking down just before the crash. She had a startled look on her face about the time of the impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a preliminary report issued last month, said the autonomous driving system on Uber's Volvo XC-90 SUV spotted Herzberg about six seconds before hitting her, but did not stop because the system used to automatically apply brakes in potentially dangerous situations had been disabled.

The system is disabled while Uber's cars are under computer control, "to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior," the NTSB report said. Instead of the system, Uber relies on the human backup driver to intervene, the report stated. But the system is not designed to alert the driver.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona the day before the NTSB report was released, eliminating the jobs of about 300 people who served as backup drivers and performed other jobs connected to the vehicles. The company had suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto while regulators investigated the cause of the crash. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited Uber from continuing its tests of self-driving cars after Herzberg was run over.

Police initially determined that Vasquez was not impaired after giving her a field test.

Analysis of video taken from the vehicle shows Vasquez looked downward 204 times in the 11.8 miles traveled before the crash. While the SUV was in motion, Vasquez averted her eyes away from the roadway nearly a third of the time, according to the report.

"Sometimes, her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down," the report said. "Her hands are not visible in the frame of the video during these times."

Attempts by The Associated Press to contact Vasquez through email and phone numbers on Friday weren't successful.

Cristina Perez Hesano, a lawyer for Herzberg's daughter and husband, and Pat McGroder, an attorney representing Herzberg's mother, father and son, declined to comment on the police report.

An Uber spokeswoman said in a prepared statement Friday morning that the company is cooperating with investigations while it does an internal safety review. "We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles. We plan to share more on the changes we'll make to our program soon," the statement said.

Use of a mobile device while an autonomous vehicle is moving is a fireable offense, and "this is emphasized on an ongoing basis," the statement said.

After the crash, the ride-hailing company said it did a top-to-bottom safety evaluation, reviewing internal processes and safety culture. Uber also said it brought in former transportation safety board chairman Christopher Hart to advise the company on safety.

Both Vasquez and Uber could still face civil liability in the case, Uber for potentially negligent hiring, training and supervision, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who closely follows autonomous vehicles.

Vasquez could be charged criminally, and if there's evidence that Uber or its employees acted recklessly, then charges against them are possible, Smith said. But charges against the company are not likely, he added.

"This should not have happened in so many ways and on so many levels," Smith said. "This report, if true, makes things worse. And obviously it would not look good to a jury."

Uber settled quickly with some of Herzberg's family members but others have retained legal counsel.

The Yavapai County Attorney's Office hasn't set a deadline for deciding whether to bring charges, said Penny Cramer, assistant to County Attorney Sheila Polk. The prosecutorial agency declined to comment on the police report.

The case was handed to Polk's office after the prosecutor's office in metro Phoenix passed on the case, citing a potential conflict of interest. The agency in Phoenix had previously participated in a public-safety campaign with Uber.

On a body camera video the night of the crash, police gathered at the scene quickly realized that they were dealing with a big story because an autonomous vehicle was involved.

An officer who identifies himself as supervisor of the unit that investigates fatal crashes is seen asking a man who appears to be an Uber supervisor about getting video from the SUV and whether Uber's lawyers have been contacted.

"You guys know as well as I know that this is going to be an international story," the police supervisor says. "We want to make sure that we're doing not only what we normally do and not doing anything different, but also making sure that everything's above board and everything's out in the open."

The supervisor goes on to say that he's going to communicate as honestly as he can. "I hope that you guys do the same because we're going to be working together throughout this whole process from now, probably for months from now."