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Tour New Jersey's Blue Anchor Fire Tower in Camden County: "Wildfires here are a huge threat"

Behind the scenes: New Jersey's Blue Anchor Fire Tower in Camden County
Behind the scenes: New Jersey's Blue Anchor Fire Tower in Camden County 02:27

WINSLOW TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBS) -- So far this year, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service says there have been 277 wildfires in the state with nearly 300 acres burned. Fire season just began.

The first line of defense? Well, they sit 100 feet or higher in the sky.  

CBS News Philadelphia

"Nothing else like it," NJFFS Fire Observer, Mark Turner, said. He's been with the fire service for eight years.

Turner spends eight hours a day — alone — up in the sky. On Tuesday, CBS News Philadelphia met him 100 feet in the air at the Blue Anchor Fire Tower, and to get there, we all walked up a narrow zig-zagged staircase.

"A lot of people think, 'Ah, I couldn't do that because you're just stuck in a box all day,' but if you really look at the big picture —  sometimes there's a lot going on," Turner said.

Arguably there is a lot going on all the time. Turner's days typically start with taking the fire weather forecast — then he listens to radios, reports and scans for smoke.

"We can spot smoke from pretty far away," Turner said. "Roughly 7-8 miles."

More than half of all wildfires in New Jersey are spotted by fire observers. The Blue Anchor Fire Tower is one of 21 across the state.

"Though we've had quite a bit of precip over the last couple months we're busy. As soon as the rain stops, the sun comes out, we have fires," New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Bill Donnelly said.

Chopper 3 caught NJFFS crews in action as more than 20 fires broke out along a 10-mile stretch in Winslow Township on Monday. Chief Donnelly said a train sparked it all.

"We were able to stop the train and our folks worked on the fires," Donnelly said.

The Blue Anchor Tower is the first tower to spot those fires.

"He [the fire observer] was able to dispatch engines, fire trucks, bulldozers, airplanes, helicopters so in a few minutes, we had folks en route," Donnelly said.

At one point in his career, the chief served on the frontlines, fighting the wildfires and also was a fire observer.

"The fire tower is critical in the response to wildfires for early detection and rapid response," Turner added.

Last year, the NJFFS reported 1,193 wildfires with more than 18,000 acres burned. It is unclear what the future holds for this fire season.

"You'd have to actually call Mother Nature and ask her. She's the one that's in charge here," Donnelly said.

Whatever she may bring, NJFFS said they are ready, starting with the men and women who command these towers.

"You're talking within a minute, a guy sees a fire to where he has resources en route," Donnelly said.

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