Those Who Watch From Fire Towers

Those Who Watch From Fire Towers

The last remaining U.S. Forest Service lookouts spend months spotting wildfires from century-old cabins situated on high peaks—and in near solitude.

Welcome to Wildlife Week, an exploration of what happens when nature and home meet.

Ulf Pike hates that he has full cell service up there. For the past three months, he’s been living in a tiny lookout cabin in Boise National Forest, a 45-minute drive from the old mining town of Idaho City, Idaho. He stores his food in a small propane fridge and stays warm with heat from an old woodstove, but at the same time, he can take phone calls, stream Netflix, and scowl at motorbikes rumbling by on recreational trails every other hour. 

Pike isn’t on vacation. He was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to station himself in the lookout tower atop a bald bluff at the end of an otherwise unoccupied dirt road, from where he scans the horizon every 30 minutes and watches out for wildfires. Like a couple hundred other professional fire lookouts hired by the U.S. Forest Service across the country, he’s responsible for spotting smoke during the fire season—which usually lasts from around April to November, depending on the location—then feeding the coordinates to responding crews so wildfires can be stopped as early as possible.

Though not exactly mainstream, fire watching is a humble profession with century-old roots. The country’s first organized fire lookout networks were established after a blazing inferno in 1910 that consumed three million acres of forest and killed 85 people across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The disaster led to the construction of 5,000 lookout towers by the late 1930s, but with the advent of newer fire-monitoring technologies, that number has dwindled to about 400 today. (Some lookouts have since become scenic vista points for hikers; others have been converted into idiosyncratic holiday rentals by the National Recreation Reservation System.)  

While many of the remaining lookouts are staffed by forestry students who take the seasonal jobs as part of their professional training, Pike isn’t one of them. The 40-year-old army veteran turned firefighter has been doing this for seven seasons. (After a back surgery forced him to step away from his role as a firefighter, the seasonal job offered him the opportunity to "stay in the fire world," he says.) Pike’s first placement was in the summer of 2015 at the Desolation Peak lookout in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, which author Jack Kerouac made famous after staying there for 63 days and detailing the experience in his 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums. "While I was there, I got a lot of visitors who were what I would’ve called Dharma Bum pilgrims looking for a Kerouac experience," Pike says. Instead of Kerouac, however, those visitors found Pike and his four-legged companion Zuul, a husky malamute his sister named after the sharp-toothed beast in the original Ghostbusters.  

His work day, which can last up to 10 hours on shift, is punctuated by regular scans of the horizon using the most basic devices fire lookouts have at their disposal—aka, his own eyes. 

The Desolation Lookout was a single-story "12-by-12-foot little box," as Pike describes it, built on a rock overlooking the jagged peaks of the North Cascades. The Thorn Creek Butte Lookout in Boise National Forest, where Pike was stationed this summer, isn’t much bigger, he clarifies, but it’s spread across two floors linked by 13 steps (yes, he counted) and ringed by a three-foot-wide deck that acts as a balcony. The downstairs plays the role of a basement with enough room to store solar batteries, firewood, and a few other tools for wilderness safety. The upstairs acts as the compact living quarters, with a sparse kitchen, a desk, and a full-size bed, plus some extra storage.  

The real star of the room, however, sits at the center, and is called the Osborne Firefinder. Named after the inventor who first devised it in 1911, the fire-plotting instrument looks like a round, glass-topped table with 360 degrees etched into the rim and a circular map of the surrounding area beneath it. (Each map has the lookout’s location positioned at the center.) Crucially, the table rotates, and is equipped with a graduated ring that has a sighting hole on one end and crosshairs on the other. When a lookout spots a fire in the distance, they peek through the hole and rotate the finder until the fire is in the crosshairs, a bit like aiming for a target with a rifle. This allows the lookout to find a directional bearing to the smoke in order to alert fire crews. 

In addition to the 20th-century fire-spotting mechanism, another common feature of other lookout towers is the full suite of shuttered windows that wrap around the cabin and offer a complete panorama of the landscape. At his early days as a fire lookout, Pike would sometimes use a marker right on the surface of those windows so he could remember the approximate location of a lightning strike (which can start fires), but today, an "exceptionally accurate, scary, and job-threatening" lightning detector does the trick, he says. 

During one of his seasonal stints as a fire lookout, Pike conducts weather readings twice a day, then relays them to U.S. Forest Service dispatches on daily check-ins. (As it so happens, my morning call with Pike is interrupted by one of those check-ins. I hear the radio crackling, then Pike rattles off a list of data points that read like code from a spy movie: "High temp 67, low 52, currently 64, RHI 23, low 13, currently 17, skies clear, visibility 20+ miles, lighting zero, precip. zero, dew point 19." After a short silence, a man’s voice at the other end of the line says, "Copy all, thank you," and the check-in is over.) The rest of his work day, which can last up to 10 hours on shift, is punctuated by regular scans of the horizon using the most basic devices fire lookouts have at their disposal—aka, his own eyes. 

When he’s not fulfilling his lookout duties, Pike passes time by going on hikes with Zuul, reading, or writing his own book on a 1968 typewriter that once belonged to his mother, which he keeps on the small desk in the cabin. Once a week, he drives down to Idaho City to get groceries—but that luxury isn’t available to many lookouts. "It’s kind of frustrating I have all these things," he says of some of the lookout’s amenities, like paved roads and cell service, which he considers frills. (The week before Pike and I spoke on the phone, a storm prevented him from being able to have the call when we originally scheduled it. When we got back in touch, he said: "That storm took out my cell booster. I was so excited because no one could call me...I no longer had the temptation to get on the internet, and it was back to books and the typewriter.") 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pike chooses to remain pretty private during his time in the wilderness, but these days, some fire lookouts make use of available cell service, however spotty, by documenting their experiences on TikTok. One such example is Brigitte Malessa, who shares Pike’s love for quietude—and this season, her assigned location afforded her lots of it. The 53-year-old has been a fire lookout for three seasons, first in New Mexico, then in Idaho, and most recently, in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 1.5-million-acre area where a 1964 Wilderness Act banned the use of anything with gears and motors (including chainsaws, drones, and to Pike’s probable delight, motorbikes). The lookout can only be accessed on a horseback ride that includes a 21-mile trip along a valley, an overnight at the base of a mountain, and then another seven-mile leg with a 3,000-foot elevation gain. Anywhere from three to seven mules join along to carry food, water, and gear. "It’s like a glorified camping trip," Malessa says. Every three to four weeks, she sends a shopping list to a packer employed by the U.S. Forest Service, who takes the mules up to resupply her. (Some other fire lookouts, by contrast, receive food and water deliveries via helicopter.)

In the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the only other signs of life Malessa encounters somewhat frequently are moose, elk, deer, and a curious mountain goat that comes near the lookout so often that Malessa decided to nickname it Buddy. She’s also noticed a few bears down in the valley. In the lookout, she keeps her food locked away in a special metal cabinet and also has a few bear-resistant boxes under her bed. But, like Pike, and presumably most—if not all—of the other fire lookouts who live in the remote towers each wildfire season, Malessa enjoys being secluded in nature. "I’ve put myself in the outdoors most of my life, so I seek this," she says. "I feel way more comfortable here than I do in a shopping mall."

When I talk to Malessa, she’s getting ready—somewhat unwillingly—to pack up and close the lookout for the season. "It’s bittersweet," she says. "I joke I’m going to barricade myself, but I’ll go peacefully. I’m ready for a shower."

Top photo courtesy of Cavan Images via Getty Images.

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