A perch on the fire season's front line
EACH workday through summer, Paul Jones drives to the top of a mountain, climbs a 40-metre tower and stares at the landscape. Hour after hour, day after day, he scans the horizon for smoke and fire.
Mr Jones likens his job to ''being paid to sit on my butt and look out the window'', but as a fire lookout operator at the Mount St Leonard tower outside Healesville, he represents the front line in Victoria's fight against bushfires.
''This is a very important tower as it looks over the rural-urban interface,'' he said. ''It covers a lot of areas through the Yarra Valley, the Dandenongs, around Healesville and over towards Yan Yean Reservoir.''
Paul Jones on the Mount St Leonard tower outside Healesville: For 14 fire seasons he has stood watch, often spotting six to eight fires a day. Photo: Tim Young
There are more than 70 fire towers across Victoria, most run by the Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
The Mount St Leonard tower is owned by Melbourne Water, and is one of the agency's four lookouts that survey the land around Melbourne's water catchments.
Fires in these areas can be devastating to the quality and yield of the city's drinking water, and a quick response from a fire spotter is the crucial first step in minimising any impact. And so, for the 15th year in a row, Mr Jones sits and he stares.
''It's hard to describe it,'' he said. ''It is boring at some point, but you're really always doing something.''
On top of the hourly ''all clear'' report back to base, Mr Jones keeps busy by spotting six to eight fires a day, ranging from planned burnoffs and house fires to stolen cars being torched in the forest.
The art of fire spotting hasn't changed much over the years. When smoke is seen, a bearing is taken and compared to another bearing sent over from a different tower.
When combined on a map, the point where the bearings cross is the location of the fire, and it is called in. There are no computers and no GPS.
It is a decidedly low-tech, but highly effective process, and is one that looks unlikely to change in the near future. Various camera systems were trialled after the Black Saturday fires with little success.
''A camera's never been made as good as a human eye,'' Mr Jones said. ''A human eye can see a much wider area and process the information faster than any computer.''
Mr Jones says he will spend as much as 12 hours a day alone in his tower, standing watch thoughout the bushfire season.
In quiet moments he peers down to check on a family of snakes that are living below. At other times he looks up to the sky.
''This bird comes past called a white-throated needletail,'' he said.
''It migrates from Siberia and flies past the tower at 200k an hour picking up bugs. It's pretty spectacular to watch.''
Forecasters are predicting a warm but wet summer, which should hopefully make for a quiet bushfire season. Mr Jones expects to be up in his perch until Easter.
''By the end of the season you're really settled,'' he said. ''I'm always very sad to leave the tower.''