Early warning: human detectors, drones and the race to control Australia’s extreme bushfires

Nick Dutton, fire tower operator, Rural Fire Service in the Kowen Forest fire tower near Canberra. Nick is wearing a cap and sunglasses, and looking to the right. The sky behind him is cloudy.
25 October 2020

Perched in his fire tower high above the pine trees, Nick Dutton leans back and nods to the cascading hills and mountains behind him.

“I love being out here, just away from stuff,” he says. “I mean, you can’t really complain.”

Dutton, a fire tower operator, is sitting in his office, a tiny cabin propped high above the treetops by metal supports that sway with the wind.

His walls are littered with compass points and references, each a guide to the bush stretching in every direction along the eastern ACT-NSW border.

Every day, Dutton climbs into one of the ACT’s four towers, armed with binoculars, a radio, and his notebook, keeping a watchful eye for the faintest wisp of smoke rising in the distance.

The mind can easily deceive.

Stare at a spot too intently, you’ll see smoke, Dutton says.

“With a little bit of experience up here, you get used to what is and what isn’t smoke,” he says.

“Some people when they first start find it hard to discern dust from smoke. But smoke does have its own characteristics and you do learn to pick that out.”

Read the full article on the Guardian website, featuring research by The Australian National University