When a wildfire occurs, the first step in the process is a timely and accurate reporting of the fire's location. To accomplish this, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service maintains a system of 21 look out towers at strategic locations throughout the state. At least one tower in each division is operated whenever the woods are dry enough to burn and all towers are staffed during the months of March, April, May, October and November.
Look out towers continue to be effective and observers detect one half of all wildfires reported. The other half are called in by the general public, aircraft pilots and forest fire patrols.
In addition, forest fire observers calculate and report fire danger ratings that are used to alert the general public and determine staffing levels for the Forest Fire Service's fire suppression operations.
How Do Fire Towers Find and Report Fires?
Fire observers are in constant communication with each other about weather and fuel conditions in the forests around them. They use dispatch radios to maintain communication.
Weather conditions affect fire behavior, so measurements are routinely taken on temperature, wind speed and relative humidity using devices like a Bell Weather Kit.
After spotting a fire the attendant uses a tool called an Osborne Fire Finder or an Alidade. This is an indicator or sighting apparatus on a plane table, used in angular measurement. A topographic surveying and mapping instrument with a telescope and graduated vertical circle is used to obtain the radial and distance to a suspected fire. From these measurements he will call in a "Smoke Report." By lining up this machine with the fire they can calculate the direction and bearing of the fire.
Each fire tower has a large map on one wall with every fire tower in the division marked on it. When a tower sports a fire, that tower uses its map to figure out where the fire is located. Using sighting from other tower, a Fire Observer can then triangulate to place a fire on the map and measure its distance from known locations on the ground. This information is used to direct response of firefighters on the ground.