Smoke Detector

On the watch for forest fires atop the Catfish Tower. (Visitors are always welcome.)

The 60-foot-tall Catfish Fire Tower is located in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
The 60-foot-tall Catfish Fire Tower is located in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Photo by Bryce Gladfelter

Bob Wolff completes the last leg of his daily commute, carrying a walking stick and a backpack. The 1/2-mile hike from his car takes him to his office atop the 60-foot-tall Catfish Fire Tower in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. From this perch along the Appalachian Trail on the Kittatinny Ridge, Wolff, a state fire warden, can accurately identify the location of fires for 10 miles around on a clear day, covering 100 square miles.

Wolff might not see another human on his walk to work, but he often encounters wild turkey and whitetail deer—even an occasional black bear. On this early spring day, I am accompanying him on the commute. Within minutes, we nearly step on a fresh pile of dung deposited by a black bear. “That’s either a really good meal,” says Wolff, “or a really big bear.”

The 56-year-old Wolff has manned the Catfish Fire Tower for 30 years. It’s plain to see that he’s good at his job. In April 2015 alone, he spotted 150 fires.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving fire towers, reports there were once 9,000 working fire towers nationwide. America is down to 800 active towers. The New Jersey Forest Fire Service has 22—all listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Catfish, built in 1922, is among the state’s oldest. It’s also at the highest elevation: 1,555 feet.

Watches begin in April, when there is often snow remaining on the ground. In the Eastern United States, high season for forest fires is early spring (when the leafy canopy has yet to fill out) and fall (when the trees have lost their leaves). Ironically, fewer fires occur in summertime, despite the presence of campers and lightning strikes. That’s because a leafy canopy holds in moisture and makes forests harder to burn.

After we climb 60 feet of stairs to the 7-by-7-foot metal cab Wolff calls his office, he opens the 40-pound trap door. “You have to have a strong back to lift that heavy door every day,” he notes.

Wolff begins his daily eight-hour shift at about 10 am, when the temperature increases, the wind picks up and humidity drops. Settling in, he switches on the radio and reports to his base in nearby Andover. “Wolff operator is signing on, Channel 7- KYD- 797,” he calls in.

And so the fire watch begins. In New Jersey, a fire observer’s job isn’t just detecting fires, but also dispatching aircraft, ground units and personnel. Once they are in action, the fire observer orchestrates the entire drama.

Wolff listens for the wind and observes the tops of the trees to see if they are bending. He watches to see how quickly the clouds are moving, another indicator of the wind. Weather can be brutal and fast to change along the ridge top. On this morning, visibility is limited and the breeze is light, but I can feel the tower sway.

In the off season and on rainy days, Wolff clears trail, does maintenance, works on the trucks in the shop—whatever the forest service needs. But in fire season, he is in the tower—up to seven days a week when the threat is high.

Within 10 minutes, the morning fog lifts and visibility picks up. Wolff’s instruments show a drop in humidity. The monument at High Point State Park, about 30 miles away, is now prominent. In the distance, New York’s Catskill Mountains, almost 100 miles away, are starting to show. “The fire day,” says Wolff, “has begun.”

With naked eyes, we scan 360 degrees around, studying the ridges and valleys. Then Wolff spots a tall column of smoke rising to the southwest near Jenny Jump State Forest, about nine miles away. We watch its behavior, passing Wolff’s binoculars back and forth. He seeks the location of the fire with the help of an alidade, an ancient instrument used to determine the location of distant objects. Using his radio, he obtains another sighting measurement from the Culvers Station fire tower in Stokes State Forest. He goes to a map on the wall and uses two strings to intersect the two sightings; the spot ends up being within an eighth of a mile of the fire.

“We’re getting another column,” Wolff alerts me. “The winds are cutting it off, pushing it down. It looks like it is getting a base to it. See the smoke coming off the tops of the trees? Now the base is getting wider. It’s a brush fire. There are lots of grasslands over there.”

Wolff dispatches the fire trucks. They are stationed in strategic locations, with loaded tanks of water. Next, Wolff radios for a forest-service helicopter. Within minutes, the chopper pilot flies in looking for the nearest water source: a river, reservoir, even a good-sized pond. The pilot needs 6 to 8 feet of water in which to dip the bucket suspended below his craft. Once he fills the 325-gallon bucket with about 11/2  tons of water, he heads for the fire and lets it go.

Wolff watches the action, binoculars glued to his eyes. It takes about 30 minutes to snuff out the blaze.

Although Wolff must stay ever alert, he is happy to greet passing hikers on the Appalachian Trail. From our vantage point, we can see the trail etched onto the surface of the ridge. When Wolff notices hikers below, he calls out a greeting and welcomes them up, pleased for the opportunity to talk about about fire safety. He hands out Smokey the Bear coins and erasers to the kids who climb the tower; sometimes a fire truck is positioned at the tower’s base to further instruct passersby on fire prevention. (You can visit other New Jersey fire towers when they are manned, although Wolff is known for being among the state’s most welcoming fire watchers.)

Many visitors ask Wolff the obvious: “Isn’t this boring?”

Not so, says Wolff. “The light is always different,” he tells them, “and the land is certainly beautiful to look at. It’s neat to see the forest coming back to life. Leaves are budding, birds returning. The wind up here is wonderful and ever-present, and fall migration is fascinating to observe, as many raptors fly very low if conditions are right. Buzzards like looking in the window 25 feet away. Folks in glider planes wave to me as they pass by noiselessly only 100 feet away.”

The weather also provides distractions. “When the wind blows at 40 mph, the structure shimmies, making quite a racket,” says Wolff. “I have been chased off the mountaintop in some serious thunderstorms, but lately I like to ride them out, just for the adventure.”

Still, says Wolff, “there are many days of pure peace.” Days when it’s just Wolff, the trees, the birds and the wind.

Cindy Ross blogs about her outdoor adventures at Her sixth book, Scraping Heaven, about her family’s 3,100-mile traverse of the Rocky Mountains, was recently reissued by Mountaineers Books.

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