Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My last post about fire lookouts for awhile*


What would you say if you were a person mildly, ok a lot, obsessed with fire lookouts, and planned to rent another one for the weekend, when out of the blue a fire management officer called you and asked you to staff one for 3 days? And you got paid for it?

Well, I'd say call me Alanis Morissette, because that's ironic!

Friday morning found me on the trail to Spotted Bear Lookout, on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, loaded down with food, water, and other necessities like flip flops, a kindle, and a backup e-reader in case the kindle's batteries died.  I plodded along the 7 mile trail. forgetting to even look for the sign nailed to a tree saying "Tired?" partway up the ridge.  Nearly 4.000 feet higher in elevation later, I peered at the lookout, looking impossibly far away on the next hill.  Cruelly, the trail dropped down into a saddle. losing a couple hundred feet before then regaining it in the final ascent.

But finally I arrived and opened up the door to my temporary home.

A fire lookout is three things: a building, a job, and a person.  Although lookouts have other tasks, like building maintenance and trail work, there really is one main duty: to spot fires.  Once a day you also take some weather observations and radio them in to Dispatch.  It's not difficult.  In fact, once you have learned to read the country surrounding your mountain, you take plenty of breaks. You can read, play guitar, or write.  Of course, your territory covers 30 miles or more with plenty of drainages. mountains, and ridges to learn.

The first two days, smoke from fires in Canada settled in the valleys.  At times, visibility was only about a half mile.  Since there was nothing to see, I hiked up the nearby ridge.  I did an exercise circuit, lifting rocks and doing pushups.  I gazed at the deer grazing below the tower and read books.

This chair has insulators on the legs.  You sit on this chair during lightning storms so you will theoretically be safe if the tower gets hit.
On the second night, a strong wind blew in from the west, clearing out the smoke and uncovering snow-covered peaks 20 miles away.  On my last morning, it rained a little.  I packed up and talked to a retired smokejumper named Norm, who had ridden his horse up to the lookout to work on the radio repeater.  Bob also arrived leading a pack string of mules carrying supplies for the regular lookout I had been replacing.  I helped him empty the boxes and put things away in the lookout.

Pack string coming up the ridge
I headed down in the early afternoon in a light rain, covering the 7 miles in less than 2.5 hours.  This time I had only borrowed the house in the sky: the regular lookout would be back up there the next night.  But you never know the turns in the road ahead.  Maybe someday I will have my own lookout summer.


  1. How fun! I'd love to relieve a regular lookout staff person.

    I'm surprised you're not fighting one of the many fires we've got burning here in the NW.

  2. Irony... and serendipity! Sweet...what a gorgeous "yard" you had!

  3. Seems peaceful and quiet, for sure. How long does a lookout typically stay in one? Is three days about average? Are they usually alone?

  4. The regular lookouts are usually up for 10 days and get 4 days off. One of the lookouts takes 2 days just to hike into! They are usually alone but sometimes couples will work there together.


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