Historic Transportation Planning Project

A man looks through an Osborne fire finder
The Osborne fire finder was one of the tools frequently used to pinpoint fire starts in the forest.

Region 6 – As reported by Albert Arnst, Staff Assistant, NFS, USFS, Washington, D. C. and Covering the Period from June 1931–late 1935

Note: The US Forest Service Transportation Planning Project in the Pacific Northwest set the National Park Service on the path of the Panoramic Lookout Project in 1934.

The idea for the study came from the Washington Office and was generated by either Mr. Loveridge or Mr. Norcross. The study was being carried on nationally, but perhaps Region 6 did more intensive work on it than any other Region.

The purpose of the Transportation Planning Study was to design a system of roads adequate to reach all portions of a National Forest by automobile and on foot within a given total travel time from recognized fire dispatching stations or headquarters. The travel time allowed was determined by fuel types and other conditions that would influence rate of spread. Certain fuel types that were considered “safer” gave the patrolman or other first line action personnel more time to reach the fire than other fuel types, such as snag area, for instance.

The study required the preparation of fuel type base maps showing in color the recognized fire hazard conditions and the rate of spread indices. This would be compared with another map showing the existing road and trail system with each road indicated in color legend, as to design standard and average MPH travel speed; and an additional map showing the location of existing lookout stations. The “coverage” obtained by first-line fire personnel was indicated by showing on vellum overlays how much country could be reached by traveling over a given road system within a given travel time. By making another map showing redesigned road systems of higher speed standards or new roads, another vellum could be prepared showing additional travel coverage that could be obtained to meet the travel standards.

Although my participation in this project began in June 1931 (upon graduation from Oregon State College School of Forestry, Corvallis, Oregon), the project had actually been initiated some months prior to that, under the direction of R. F. Grefe, office of Fire Control in the Regional Office in Portland, Oregon, working under Fire Chief Fred Brundage. Mr. Grefe was assisted by the late Mr. R. A. Bottcher, who was working on that part of the study relating to road construction and design and standards. Mr. Grefe came from the Cascade National Forest (now Willamette) at Eugene, Oregon. He later was Regional Engineer, succeeding the late Mr. Jim Franklin.

During a part of the summer of 1931 we worked with Richard McArdle, who was then attached to the Pacific Northwest Forest Experiment Station. Mr. McArdle was determining visibility of “smoke” on land areas covered by lookout stations, under varying smoke and atmospheric conditions. Our procedure was to establish radio or telephone contact with a lookout station and then work out progressively by road or trail in an increasing radius to determine how far the observer could spot a small smoke. Smoke was simulated by smoke bombs that could be “fired” progressively at various field locations. The Byram haze meter was also used.

Upon the basis of these smoke bomb tests, it was determined that under the most favorable visibility conditions a lookout observer could spot a fire 15 miles away, under average summer conditions 8 miles, and under emergency smoked-in conditions only 5 miles.

It then became a project to prepare “seen-area” maps showing detection coverage provided by the existing lookout system. For this purpose the seen-areas were sketched in special transparent colors on plasticele discs that were centered on the individual lookout locations. A mounted base map of each national forest with small metal pegs placed for each lookout location, was used to indicate the composite seen-area from all the lookout stations or any combination of stations, for the three radii previously described. By comparing this coverage with a fuel type map it was easy to determine which fuel types were adequately covered by the lookout system, and conversely, where the blind spots existed that required supplemental lookout coverage.

The big problem in preparing the seen-area maps was to arrive at an accurate system of seen-area mapping. Our consultant on this was Mr. Lage Wernsted, a skilled photogrammetist in Engineering who was adept at preparing contour maps from oblique aerial photos or from “flat” photos he had secured as panoramas from triangulated lookout stations. Where contour maps were available it was possible to use those photos as guides and project line of sight delineations that showed visible areas. Mr. Wernsted developed a special plotting instrument, which we called a “harp”, that was useful in determining where lines of sight from an established elevation would intersect contour lines on distant ridges. If no contour maps were available, the mapper had to identify drainages on an ordinary base map and then do the best job he could by comparing photos against map legends.

We found that the standard oriented panoramic photos, obtained with the Bush Osborne special camera for fire-dispatching purposes, were extremely useful in seen-area mapping. The presence of a “level line,” the plus and minus angles of elevation and depression, and the recorded azimuth circle readings were great aids in mapping work, especially where contour maps were available.

The problem was that there weren't enough panoramic photos available from a sufficient number of lookouts to be meaningful for any large scale mapping project. Nor were there sufficient cameras to carry on a large-scale photography project. In cooperation with Mr. Osborne, it was decided to order about six more “photo-recording transits” so that an expanded photographing project could be launched.

These custom built “transits” (or cameras) were delivered at various times during 1932. Considerable time was spent with Mr. Osborne in testing each transit carefully for scale calibrations on the azimuth circle and the plus and minus angles. This meant occupying a test station on the rooftop of the Federal Building in Portland and securing panoramic photos of the several horizons. On these pictures we carefully checked all photographed calibrations for accuracy.

The Presidential campaign of 1932 elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as President. Shortly after he assumed office in January 1933 it became apparent that extensive conservation and natural resource programs would be launched early that year, including the now well-known Civilian Conservation Corps. Since our cameras had been pretty well tested by this time we made plans to ask for funds with which we could employ a six-man camera crew to secure photos from lookout stations. We secured approval in early 1933 and at the close of the school year in June put our crew of cameramen in the field, with myself being in charge of the highly mobile crew. During most of 1933 we worked under many adverse conditions because the camera crew had to be technically attached to CCC Camps and could not travel on standard per diem allowances.

The camera crew consisted of Lester Moe, R. L. Cooper, J. D. Rittenhouse, Robert M. Snyder, William Burchall, and Reino Sarlin. With the exception of Mr. Burchall they were all college students, mostly in forestry, who elected to stay out of college for the duration of the project. Their time was required during the winter months to prepare seen-area maps from all the panoramic photos secured during the field season, a full-time job in itself.

The field work was unusual in that we had to work straight through, including Saturdays and Sundays, whenever visibility conditions were favorable, so that we could obtain the best photos possible. If we were working in a west-of-the Cascades area and ran into a local forest fire situation that smudged the air, we would transfer operations literally overnight to some other location where the air was clear. Sometimes this meant a long trip.

We worked in all of Oregon and Washington and occupied every lookout station that provided detection coverage on a National Forest area. This included State lookouts, protective association stations, etc. Along the Snake River in northeastern Oregon, on the Wallowa National Forest, we secured photos from the Seven Devils Range (R-1) in Idaho, looking back into Oregon.

We also cooperated with Eastman Kodak Co. in developing special film that would be effective in penetrating haze and smoke. We finally-adopted a special emulsion infra-red sensitive film that when used with red filters cut through haze and smoke miraculously.

Many other interesting experiences could be described because of the wide variety of stations occupied, ranging from tree towers to 120' steel towers. It required considerable ingenuity in some locations to find and occupy a suitable camera station. Rooftops and catwalks around observation cabins were commonly used.

After the field season terminated most of the crew stayed on during the winter to prepare seen-area maps from the panoramic photos, using USGS contour maps where available and base maps otherwise. One winter we were domiciled at the newly constructed Summit Guard Station near Government Camp, Oregon. This provided both favorable working conditions and an outdoor environment in which to let off steam after hours of tedious mapping.

I remained with the detection planning project until late 1935, when we completed the occupation of every usable lookout station in Oregon and Washington.

In 1936, Mr. Bob Reinhardt, now in Timber Management in the Washington Office, was put in charge of follow-up work on the detection planning project. He carried on by occupying newly developed lookout stations and filling in the gaps as they occurred. I understand that he also cooperated with other agencies in making the Forest Service cameras available for their use. I am not familiar with these details and would suggest that Mr. Reinhardt be contacted to give you a more authentic report.

Upon completion of the project I prepared a final report, describing in more detail some of the technical aspects mentioned. Copies of this should be available in Fire Control files of approximately 1935.

/s/ Al Arnst

Thank you to The Forest History Society for permission to reprint this story from History of the Rogue River National Forest [page 32 of 408].

Last updated: January 5, 2017