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Stephanie Stewart, a fire spotter, vanished from her post in northern Alberta in 2006.

The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Tips trickle in. Every lead is followed up. But five years after a 70-year-old fire spotter vanished without a trace from her post in northern Alberta, police still have no clue what happened to Stephanie Stewart.

Yet, officers remain almost certain of one thing: Ms. Stewart was murdered.

"We have not forgotten and we have not given up," said RCMP spokeswoman Doris Stapleton as police issued a renewed plea for information that could lead to an arrest or the location of Ms. Stewart's remains.

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"I feel for the family and friends of Stephanie Stewart," Ms. Stapleton added. "It's that element of not knowing and not being able to obtain closure."

Ms. Stewart was considered very active for a 70-year-old.

For 18 years, she spent each summer working as a fire spotter. The last 13 years of her career placed her every April through September at the Athabasca watch tower, about 25 kilometres northwest of Hinton, a rugged blue-collar town located 280 kilometres west of Edmonton at the edge of Jasper National Park.

At 5-foot-2 and 105 lbs., Ms. Stewart was the picture of health, having recently tackled Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. She spent winters in the Rocky Mountain resort community of Canmore, Alta.

The daily, lonely grind of climbing a ladder to her observation post, armed with binoculars and a radio, Ms. Stewart scanned for signs of smoke and routinely checked in with her supervisor. She descended to the cabin to take meals and sleep.

"Mom's a hell of a woman," Ms. Stewart's daughter, Lorie, said at the time of her mother's disappearance, "She's very strong, she's very capable … The tower life is her life."

At 9 o'clock in the evening on Aug. 25, 2006, Ms. Stewart chatted on the phone with a relative. The next morning, she failed to perform her routine radio check-in, a task performed at least three times each day.

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When she couldn't be contacted, another worker was dispatched to her station.

The only signs of life were a pot, still warm after boiling on the stove, and her Dodge Ram truck parked in the gravel driveway. By 9 a.m. Aug. 26, police were called.

A search was launched on the ground, by boat and in the air. Thousands of kilometres of land around the tower was scanned using infrared technology. Poking through dense brush on foot and via all terrain vehicles turned up nothing.

Missing from the cabin: two pillows with blue pillow cases, a burgundy bed sheet and a Navajo patterned bed cover. So was a gold watch. The objects haven't been recovered, police said.

Investigators have ruled out an accident, animal attack or some kind of medical condition that could have caused Ms. Stewart to wander away.

"Their forensic investigation at the scene has led them to believe this was a homicide," said Ms. Stapleton, declining to reveal little else to "protect the integrity of the investigation."

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Soon after Ms. Stewart disappeared, the provincial government launched a safety review and later implemented a number of changes in an effort to protect fire spotters at Alberta's 128 watch towers, said Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesman with Sustainable Resource Development.

At drive-up locations such as the Athabasca station, gates were installed to restrict vehicle access. Cabins were reinforced with new locks, steel doors and shatterproof glass. Self-defence training is now required. Staffers also wear radios, personal locator beacons and have panic buttons. More frequent check-ins are also required.

"We give Stephanie credit for all these improvements in the workplace," said Dennis Malayko with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, "Unfortunately, it takes an incident of this nature to raise this concern."

Some fire spotters have dogs or spouses with them for the season, but for most, it's a solitary life by choice.

"Jack Kerouac wrote a book on it," noted Mr. MacDonnell, referring to the beatnik's famous work Desolation Angels, about his time as a fire lookout in Washington state.

In Alberta, about a third of the 1,600 to 1,800 forest fires recorded annually are detected by fire spotters. It's not a job that can be automated.

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"You certainly have the need for the fire towers and the people who have the love of the job," Mr. MacDonnell added.

The Alberta government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees are offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case.

"Even if they think they saw something, but they think it's nothing, we would like to hear from them," Ms. Stapleton said, "No matter how trivial they think it might be, we would appreciate a phone call."



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