The job of a fire lookout is simple: live in a remote, elevated tower and monitor the distance for signs of fire, track the weather, facilitate firefighters and other workers. There are more than two thousand fire lookout towers across the United States. Of these, less than half are still staffed by either paid workers or intrepid volunteers. But technology has not yet overtaken the job, which has attracted such luminous minds as Jack Kerouac and Normal Maclean.
While simple, the job of a fire lookout requires a steady mind and an eagle’s eye for detail — not to mention the ability to withstand months-long stretches of solitude. Mark Hufstetler has several seasons under his belt as a lookout in Montana’s Flathead National Forest, and says he doesn’t mind the solitude one bit. Although his dog Charlie probably helps with that.
In his own words, here’s a fire lookout solitude, smoke signals and the peacefulness of it all.
I've been interested in fire lookouts ever since I was a kid. My dad worked for the Forest Service and I would accompany him on visits to lookouts in Idaho — I caught the romance of living on a mountaintop even at age 7. I worked for the Park Service as an historian for a while after college and did research and field visits to lookouts as part of my job, and continued my interest in their history after that. (My “day job” is working as a contract historian.)
A couple of years ago I finally decided to set aside some time each summer to serve as a volunteer lookout for the Flathead National Forest, and I hope to continue that for the rest of my days. I spend three weeks each summer living at a couple of different lookouts, the main one being a six-mile hike into the backcountry near the Great Bear Wilderness.
Day-to-day life is fairly unstructured, though you're ostensibly on duty for 8-hour workdays. Watching for “smokes” (possible fire sightings) during daylight hours, and carefully monitoring lightning whenever it occurs. There's a small meteorological station at each lookout, and we radio in daily weather reports. Many of the lookout locations have an important role as radio relay stations, since the deep mountain valleys in the wilderness often don't have good two-way radio reception. We're the radio link to the outside for backcountry trail crews and firefighters.
There's also plenty of time for contemplation, of course — reading, writing, watching nature. It can be pretty zen up there, and of course that's what most lookouts are looking for. I definitely never get bored.
I went for one stretch last summer where I didn't see another human for ten solid days, and I was surprisingly fine with that. Nowadays, most of the lookout towers are in cell range and there's the two-way radio, so there's always someone to talk to, and most people don't feel lonely. The other lookouts are mostly kindred spirits and so are great to talk to. During fire season listening to fire traffic on the two-way radio is fascinating.
Sleeping in a place like that is... different. The towers I live in are 15 feet square — 225 square feet — and all four walls are almost fully occupied by curtain-less windows. You rise with the sun, which in mid-summer is pretty early, and you often go to bed earlier, too. The towers are off the grid, but most have solar panels that provide juice for the radio and enough extra for an LED light or two, but there's a feeling of things shutting down after dark.
At night when the weather's good, things are astoundingly quiet — no human-caused sound at all — and that can take some getting used to. That human silence also makes you hyper-aware of natural sounds, too, which is disconcerting to some, at first, but I think is pretty cool. That partly results in an increased awareness of weather-related sounds, listening for rain and thunder and wind, since those events translate into changes in fire danger, which is what you're there to monitor. Those tall wooden towers really shake in the wind, too.
During fire season, I keep the two-way radio on at night, and so even when I'm asleep I'm subconsciously on the alert for something that I might need to deal with.
All in all, though, I sleep very well up there.
At night, most fire lookout locations are isolated enough that the views are entirely devoid of any other human-generated light, which is a real rarity in this world.
The stars and the night sky are absolutely amazing.