Sky’s the limit for fire lookout

By JOSEPH SAPIA Correspondent

 Andy Prochnow reflects on his work in the lookout tower located in Thompson Park, Monroe, where employees of the state Forest Fire Service keep watch for wildfire. Andy Prochnow reflects on his work in the lookout tower located in Thompson Park, Monroe, where employees of the state Forest Fire Service keep watch for wildfire. On clear, low-humidity days at Jamesburg Tower, Andy Prochnow has a naked-eye view of the Freedom Tower and Empire State Building about 35 miles away in New York City.

In between New York City and the lookout tower in Thompson Park in Monroe, Prochnow looks out into the Raritan River basin, which includes flammable Pine Barrens and other open areas interspersed with houses and commercial buildings.

So, 65 feet above ground in an approximately 7-by-7-foot cupola, Prochnow keeps watch for wildfire using the naked eye and, at times, binoculars.

“You’re up here a lot of the time,” said Prochnow, 26, a part-time lookout for the state Forest Fire Service. “You learn to occupy yourself.”

By now, Prochnow may be done for the season in Jamesburg Tower. Normally, the two-month fire season, based on environmental conditions, ends around May 15, when vegetation greens up.

No matter if the season ends normally or dry conditions persist, Prochnow will be done at Jamesburg Tower. But not done with fire lookouts.

Instead, Prochnow, who lives in Freehold Township and is part of a line of family members serving as volunteer firefighters, is headed out West. From June 2 to Sept. 5 — or later if the Western fire season lingers — Prochnow will be working for the federal Bureau of Land Management at a fire lookout in Custer National Forest in Montana.

“I’m excited,” Prochnow said. “It’s going to be a great experience. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know what the job entails. It’s going to be like an adventure.”

John Rieth, an assistant warden in the Forest Fire Service division between the Raritan and Mullica rivers, said he hates to see Prochnow leave the area temporarily “because he’s an asset.”

“[But] this is a good experience and [he will] have something on his résumé,” said Rieth, who hired Prochnow as a firefighter and lookout in 2010.

Prochnow said some his earliest memories are at the firehouse of the Freehold Township Independent Fire Co., with which the Prochnow-Story family has long been connected.

“From an early age, I knew I was going to become a firefighter,” he said, adding that he and his family members were instilled with a desire to give back to the community.

Prochnow became interested in fighting wildfires when Freehold Township Independent assisted at the 2007 Warren Grove fire in the Pine Barrens.

“Seeing that fire, the raw power of nature, kind of stuck with me,” Prochnow said. “It’s something I was interested in.”

With a history degree — his other degree is in studies in war and peace — from Vermont’s Norwich University, Prochnow said he was interested in national and county parks. Last year, his job search took him to Sandy Hook, where he worked as a federal firefighter.

This year, it is Montana, looking out over wilderness. Prochnow said he sought the fire tower job there because of the state’s rich wildfire history.

“It’s always great for somebody from [Freehold Township Independent] to go out and help out,” said Independent Fire Chief Dan Spicuzza. “With the knowledge he’s gained, he’s a shoo-in.”

Besides going from the suburban-rural view of the Jamesburg Tower to the wilderness of the Fort Howes Fire Station area of Montana, Prochnow will be going from a commuting tower to a live-in one.

“I believe it was 40 miles from the nearest town with a grocery, [and] 17 miles down a dirt road [from the fire station],” Prochnow said. “It’s going to be a lot more terrain. You’re by yourself most of the time.”

With his interest in history and his other job at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Freehold, Prochnow expects to cope in the isolation of the Montana wilderness.

“I like to read,” Prochnow said. “I read everything — history, forestry, fiction, Tom Clancy, James Rollins.”

He also expects to pass the time learning the Montana terrain and fuel types.

“I think I’ll be all right,” Prochnow said. “You’re up here a lot of the time [in Jamesburg Tower]. You learn to occupy yourself.”

Prochnow’s girlfriend, Kristian Aspiolea, 24, of Freehold Township, said she expects to talk to him often. And various people are going to send him packages containing snacks and over-the-counter health care products.

As for books, Aspiolea said, “He’s the one that gets the discount [at Barnes & Noble]. He’s on his own on that one.”

Prochnow is credited for being professional at all times.

“He takes things very seriously. He takes directions well,” Rieth said, adding that, offduty, he is “a fun guy to be with.”

Trevor Raynor, the state Forest Fire Service warden who is Prochnow’s immediate boss, backed him for the job out West. Raynor said he wants to hear what Prochnow learns.

“I was excited to hear he got hired out West as a seasonal,” Raynor said. “That’ll be a good experience.”

“I hope he comes back with new knowledge. I hope he learns a lot,” Aspiolea said.

“Proud of him, an awesome job,” said Aspiolea, herself a Freehold Township Independent firefighter. “I’ve been to Montana before — gorgeous. I wish I could go with him.”