Across China: Fire lookout keeps a watchful eye on forests

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HOHHOT, Oct. 10 (Xinhua) -- While most Chinese were soaked in festive vibes as they celebrated the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, an occasion for family reunions, Zhong Jingfeng canceled his holiday celebrations once again and stayed deep in the mountains to watch for smoke.

Zhong, 45, has spent 17 years as a fire lookout on Okliet Mountain, a 1,520-meter peak in the Inner Mongolia section of the Dahinggan Mountains, or the Greater Hinggan Mountains.

The Greater Hinggan Mountains, dotted with forests, grasslands and wetlands, serve as an important ecological barrier in northern China.

However, lightning often sparks wildfires in the mountains. Statistics show that lightning strikes have ignited more than 60 fires in the forests this year. The best way to stop a fire is to catch it early. As the "eyes in the forest," lookouts are the instrument of choice.

The Inner Mongolia section of the Greater Hinggan Mountains has 253 lookout towers staffed by 819 fire lookouts.

Every morning, Zhong gets up at 6 a.m., observing the area every 15 minutes and reporting any smoke or fire threats to the local forestry authorities every hour.

The tools at his disposal -- a faded map, a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie -- have gone virtually unchanged.

"I am like a drone for the firefighting team," Zhong said. "If I misjudge the location of the fire, they have to travel greater distances. But any delay would be catastrophic."

During a forest fire in 2008, fire crews thought the fire had been contained, but Zhong noticed heavy smoke by gazing outward from the mountaintop.

"The fire must have spread, but the team couldn't see it in the woods," he recalled. The crew adjusted their actions and finally put out the fire based on Zhong's timely advice.

Zhong's wife Sui Fengyan joined her husband in April to help him overcome his loneliness at living in this hard-to-reach place.

"I didn't think much of my husband's job before. After half a year with him on the mountain, it occurred to me that his job was very demanding," said Sui.

Zhong is familiar with every road and river in the forest. "I have seen many fires over the years, and I have gained experience," he said.

Guarding the forest is tough. The average temperature at the mountaintop can drop to minus 10 Celsius degrees, while facilities including houses and solar panels have to be fixed with cables and ground anchors due to strong winds.

There is no man-made road on Okliet Mountain. People have to spend four hours on a round trip from the mountain foot to the top. Every few days, the couple goes halfway down the mountain to fetch water. A full water bottle can weigh 30 kg.

The most difficult thing is to live alone on a mountain for most of the year, away from people, roads and modern conveniences. Every spring, Zhong ascends the mountain to take on the lookout job and leaves before winter comes. "My son has gone to college. I miss him a lot."

In recent years, due to the influence of climate change and other factors, the number of fires has increased, but the area of fire-ravaged forests has been declining, said Wang Zhiwen, an official with the forestry bureau of Alongshan Township which administers Zhong's lookout station.

Wang attributes the progress to the warning and monitoring system of forest fire prevention as well as the dedication of fire lookouts.

Although some people argue that technology can take the place of fire lookouts at the forest service, Wang disagrees.

"Technologies such as drones will increase the accuracy of fire monitoring and reduce human exposure to risk, but human monitoring also counts especially in bad weather and under special geographical conditions," he said. "They are complementary."

The sun is on its downward climb, casting new shadows and new light on the surrounding mountains, and Zhong is still in his lookout station, gazing outward.

The mountaintop living conditions have been improved in recent years. Zhong's house has been wrapped by insulating layers and phone signals are available to allow him to chat with his son.

"Life up here is getting better. I feel grateful to my wife and son. I will continue to guard the forest and won't let them down," said Zhong. Enditem

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