'Eyes in the sky' for wildfire detection in Canada are our first line of defence

Filmmaker Tova Krentzman's documentary "Fire Tower" takes us inside the unique lives of fire lookouts

While thousands of Canadians have already been forced to evacuate from their homes as wildfires spread, filmmaker Tova Krentzman has documented the fascinating lives of people who help protect Canadians from the threat of these fires. The documentary Fire Tower shows us the "eyes in the sky" who spot the smoke, perched up high in the Rocky Mountains and the Yukon, providing essential information for fire safety networks.

"I actually worked in a wildfire fighting camp in northern Alberta one summer," Krentzman told Yahoo Canada, during the 2024 Hot Docs Festival. "I was working in the beginning of the season ... and so a lot of the lookouts ... were staying at the camp on their way to their respective towers."

"So I got to meet them and talk to them and get to know them, hear their stories, and I was completely fascinated by what they do. ... They were talking about how ... they didn't know how long their positions would be lasting, the lookout. So it sort of planted the seed for me."

Kimberly Jackson in fire tower lookout, gazing through binoculars spotting smoke in the documentary Fire Tower
Kimberly Jackson in fire tower lookout, gazing through binoculars spotting smoke in the documentary Fire Tower

Not many provinces in Canada have lookouts anymore. As Fire Tower highlights, Canada has 110 active fire lookouts across the country. Individuals looking out from these towers are able to spot up to 40 per cent of wildfires.

In Alberta, Krentzman had to get access to the towers from the government, who put together the list of people she could access for the film, getting to them by road. In the Yukon, which is where Krentzman lives, there are only six lookout there, which the filmmaker could go to, with access from that local government as well.

"Everyone is so passionate, they're so passionate about their jobs, they care so much about what they're doing that I think they were happy to share their story," Krentzman said.

While being a lookout is a unique role in and of itself, the isolated nature of the job also provides a unique opportunity to be introspective. While several lookouts featured in the documentary love the freedom of being high up in these structures alone, they're also facing some more challenging realities of how it impacts other parts of their lives, like the ability to have children. But ultimately, there is so much passion for the people who take on these positions.

TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2024/04/29: (L-R) Caitlin Durlak, Tova Krentzman, and Louis Hearn attend

With a character-driven narrative from the seven subjects of this documentary, Krentzman also highlights how critical these lookout roles are. The ability to have human radar for wildfires.

"This is kind of the unsung hero type of scenario," Krentzman said. "They're really the first signs of detection and the earlier you spot smoke or the earlier you spot a fire, the more chance you have of bringing it under control."

"That's really the essence of the lookout is their ability, with their eyes, to just see that tiny whiff of smoke and call it in, and that then leads to the whole series of events of the helicopter, the planes, the people that work in wildland protection. It's a beautiful synchronicity, but it's so wild to just think of that one person up there. ... I do hope that people have that ability to know what's actually going on, who's spending six months in a tower to make sure they're safe."

Fire Tower also addresses technology and automation impacting the role of these lookouts, raising the question of whether the human eye can actually be replaced.

"There really isn't any technology that's around at this time that can replace the human eye," Krentzman stressed. "I think our tendency in the world is to move towards these technological advances and changes, and then decisions are made in boardrooms, not by the people often involved in the actual wildfire departments. So it might not be around forever."

"It is interesting to see, what is our big drive to always replace things some technological advance, when we have something that's working so well. ... In this situation, I'm not sure there is a benefit. Even if at some point there's something that's similar, in terms of ability, does it still makes sense to replace a person that's doing such a good job at what they're doing? What does make sense is to combine, is to have a combination of factors. Right now they're able to see where lightning strikes happen, and that's very helpful and used in conjunction with the lookouts. ... But hopefully they can work together as opposed to the idea of one replacing the other."