Have you ever wondered what life is like living in a fire lookout tower? In my time working in National Parks and hiking around the west, I’ve heard some good stories and had an opportunity to visit a few. It’s been a fantasy for sometime to spend a few weeks, or a month, or maybe an eintire summer as a lookout.
In 1902 before the system of lookout towers was established, Maybel Gray, a cook at a timber cruising camp in northern Idaho, was asked by her boss to climb a ladder, sit 15 feet up in a fir tree, and look for smoke. If she saw anything suspicious, she’d hop on her horse and alert the crews. Three years after the Forest Service created the job, Hallie Morse Daggett became the first female to serve as a Forest Service fire lookout, at Eddy Gulch in northern California’s Klamath National Forest. Hallie grew up fearing the wildfires she saw as a child. She loved exploring nature in the Siskiyou Mountains, and so in 1913, no woman had ever held the position, but she applied to be a lookout. She got the job!
The Forest Service got into the business of fighting fire after the huge 1910 fires in the northern Rockies, which burned millions of acres and took many lives of firefighters. After that fire suppression was in full force. Trails, telephone lines were strung through the mountains and eventually lookout towers were constructed. Many sets of eyes were scanning the forests daily and fires could be quickly spotted. Firefighters could jump on them quickly and put them out. These lookout towers had small cabins and windows on each side for a 360 degree view. Many of these towers were constructed during the CCC days of the 1930s. They also proved useful during World War Two for aircraft spotting and as “listening posts” for German submarines off shore in the Atlantic.
Jill Owen, a long time friend, visited this last spring and told stories of her upcoming duty as a fire lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the preparations needed to be in that remote location (18 miles from the trailhead) for 3-4 months. As a former wildlife biologist and wilderness ranger, Jill had plenty of experience with the Forest Service. She then took a break for more than a decade to operate a natural food store she and her husband, Russ, owned, “Mountain Front Market”. Her biggest concern as she returned to the FS was not passing the physical requirements test (she did that with flying colors).
The days when Jill was at my home she was planning what food to bring (having to plan for 3 months or so) as well as clothing, reading, writing material, puzzles and personal needs. Some lookouts decide to take up knitting or learn how to play and instrument. Jill was “packed” into her lookout by horse packers, so she had to be very thoughtful about weight.
The Prairie Reef lookout, Jill’s summer home, and most others are on mountain tops. They are equipped with propane lights and stove, some have solar panels, small fridges and a wood stove for heat. Water is critical, of course, and most are situated too high for springs. Many lookouts have water supplied by pack horses, as Jill does. It’s the best way to know how much water one actually uses!
Historically, standard issue in the towers was a chair designed to protect against electrocution after lighting. Glass insulators are attached to the base of the wooden chairs’ and the beds’ legs. “The structures are all wired with “lightning rods” as well. Some of these lookouts have seen some very exciting and wild storms!
Most mornings begin early with sunrise, coffee and the beginning of radio communications reporting weather and any other observations. A lookout is responsible for radio communications between backcountry crews. If the weather is clear and no thunder storms come through, they have chores. Scraping paint, painting and other lookout maintenance jobs are most prevalent. Some of these locations host a number of visitors and a letter I received from Jill in August noted she’d had over 125 people stop by the lookout on their wilderness journey. One group of hikers showed up at 5 am ready to watch the sunrise!
Signs and sightings of wildlife are common. Jill mentioned seeing mountain goats, elk and hoary marmots. One morning she took a short video through a window of a pika close to the lookout. The lookout sits on a pile of loose rock rubble and that is the pika’s lair, she wrote in a letter.
She also mentions many species of birds including Hummingbirds, Bluebirds, Robins, Ravens, Cliff Swallows, Cassin and Rosy Finches, Clark’s Nutcrackers and Gray Jays, Prairie Falcons and Golden Eagles and more.
Jill found a Larch tree so large she could only get her arms halfway around the trunk! This was in a stand of old growth Spruce and Fir. “The ancient ones were surrounded by smaller and younger trees that were pretty old themselves but due to high elevation conditions they hadn’t gotten too big”.
Of course, they are constantly attuned to storms and the aftermathof the storms (especially small, sometimes hard to detect smoke plumes). It can be tricky to differentiate fog and the smoke so discretion is important. If a plume is found, its location is determined by the Osborn Fire Finder and reported. It will be looked for by neighboring lookouts and bearings will be triangulated to get an accurate location. Then the work of firefighters starts to determine if smoke jumpers and Heli tack crews move in. If it is so remote and weather conditions allow, perhaps the decision to monitor a fire for a bit to determine if suppression is needed. A lookout in a fire tower is important in many ways. They can be in a tower for an entire day studying the movements and changes in a fire. He/she is a real time communication link for fire crews working in rugged and dangerous terrain. They have so much experience with this, it’s possible to relay information based on conditions.
Some feel as though human occupied lookouts may be going the way of the past. Replacement with technology like satellites and drones is how some see a new way for fire detection and monitoring. This may be a trend, but a person in the lookout offers many layers of fire observation technology can’t do. A lookout can find the first sign of smoke and help decisions to be made early. He/she watches for subtle changes in fire activity and weather that are very important to making decisions about fire suppression techniques. A human can direct attack crews by radio. Other parts of the summer when the fires are not threatening, a person is a contact point for backcountry travelers who need information, help or even just as a way to have some idea how many backcountry users are traveling through.
Below is something Jill sent me to provide an insight to the feelings of a lookout:
With all the changes we are experiencing at this time, my hope is these Fire lookouts contiue to watch over our forests.
May you all enjoy the beauty of autumn as the seasons continue to change,