Once there were five thousand of them. But due to technology, the number of fire lookouts has dwindled to just a few hundred. Jeff Rice reports on what drives the people who belong to this vanishing breed to keep vigil over the forests of the West.
CURWOOD: Welcome to an encore addition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Wildfires have once again ravaged the West this summer. And so the work of the fire lookout has been gaining increasing importance. Once, more than 5,000 lookouts served as the primary means of fire detection for the U.S. Forest Service. Today, all but 300 of them are gone. Jeff Rice has our look at this vanishing part of American culture.
RICE: In 1910, what seemed like half of Idaho and Montana suddenly went up in flames. More than three million acres burned in just two days. Eighty-five firefighters died. And it still remains the worst fire in U.S. history. Soon after that, little box huts of wood and glass began to sprout on mountaintops across the country and people were hired for the summer, to live in them and watch over the forests. Ray Kresek is a fire lookout historian.
KRESEK: The experience required to become a lookout is virtually nil. Lowest paying job on the ladder. But, at one time, it was considered the most valuable job in the Forest Service. It was the eyes of the fire detection system.
RICE: You had your radio and your binoculars, your wood stove, and those who could stand the solitude had the chance to live, for a few quiet months, among the high peaks.
KRESEK: You were king of the mountain and you had a purpose that really had rewards other than money.
READER: In the morning I woke up and it was beautiful. Blue, sunshine sky, and I went out in my alpine yard and there it was: hundreds of miles of pure snow-covered rocks and virgin lakes and high timber.
RICE: In 1956, Jack Kerouac spent two months on a lookout in Washington state, spending the time drying out from alcohol and hard living.
READER: And below, instead of the world, I saw a sea of marshmallow clouds as flat as a roof and extending miles and miles in every direction, creaming all the valleys.
RICE: The experience turned the beat poet into a first-class nature writer, in his book "The Dharma Bums." Desolation Peak was barren and windy and his writing is a mixture of lonely despair and rapture. No alcohol, no pills, no grass, just the void and Mount Hozameen staring back at him.
READER: And it was all mine. Not another pair of eyes in the world was looking at this immense cycloramic universe of matter.
RICE: Gradually, lookouts across the country, including Kerouacs, have been phased out, replaced by technology like satellites and spotter planes. Now only about 300 in the U.S. are still functioning. One of the few places where theyre still widely used is Idaho. Certain factors here still make lookouts a cost effective way of monitoring the forest. Part of it is tradition – the lookouts are already in place – and part of it has to do with the vast amounts of federal and state forestland. About 30 million acres of ponderosa pine and spruce spread from the tip of the panhandle to the edge of the low deserts. With so much area to cover, its too expensive to rely solely on spotter planes. It helps to have extra pairs of eyes, on the mountain. Lookouts are essentially weather spotters and what they watch for is lightning. Aside from the occasional careless campfire, lightning is the main event here. And over on Long Tom lookout, in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Janet Bloemeke describes what its like to witness a storm blow in.
BLOEMEKE: You watch the cloud build, from blue sky to your first little puff, and watch the vertical development and an anvil, and you start seeing your first strikes, and youre waiting to see, well, which direction is it going to move?
RICE: Then it occurs to you, she says. You have one of those lookout epiphanies. Youre at the highest point on a mountain, and Zeus is not happy.
BLOOMEKE: And we were just like, oh my god, its coming, and were not only going to be, like, in its path, were going to be in it.
[MUSIC: Wagners "Ride of the Valkyries" ]
BLOOMEKE: And it was like being in a room with, like, a bunch of strobe lights, just that flashy, blue, consistent light. And you could feel the electrical charge building up, because the hair on your arms will start to stand up and tingle. And I just thought, you know, its just a matter of time before this lookout just gets slammed.
BLOEMEKE: It was intense, it was really intense. And then, when they go off, when youre in them like that and the adrenaline rush and stuff, and then when it starts dancing across the ridges and coming right at you, you just get really excited. When it hits, its so quick. I mean, theres a sudden flash of white light. At the same time theres like a crack of a whip and a loud boom and you know that youve been hit. And, like, within ten minutes you turn in seven fires. I dont know. I guess its the lightning rush that I really live for, up here.
[MUSIC AND THUNDER]
RICE: If you ever got stuck on a mountaintop during a storm, you could stop by Howard Crists lookout, on the Boise National Forest. Hed be happy to take you in out of the rain, offer you some coffee, and maybe a little bourbon.
CRIST: Youre welcome to stay as long as you can. Lets just be comfortable and talk.
RICE: Howard scans the view from 8,000 foot Jackson Peak. Hes a tall man in his fifties, with generous shocks of tousled gray hair, and hes in constant motion, circulating the catwalk around the lookout, 15 feet off the ground, watching for phantom fires.
CRIST: Ive always thought what I liked about it and kind of what got me addicted to it was the fact that you spend anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day walking around, just letting thoughts run through your head. I mean, wasnt it Nietzsche who said that the only thoughts that man ever came up with that were worth anything were done while hes walking?
RICE: The job, understandably, attracts a more philosophical type of person, particularly those who dont mind making 11 or 12 bucks an hour plus overtime. Crist says hes held a lot of jobs, among them college professor, documentary filmmaker and cemetery plot salesman. And for the past nine years hes worked in the summer as a fire lookout.
CRIST: Its a good way to spend three or four months out of the year. Its an addiction, it gets in your blood and its hard to get out.
RICE: Inside his one-room lookout, a square box thats mostly windows, Crist prepares a meal of ramen noodles on a hot plate, patiently waiting for the water to boil at the high altitude.
CRIST: Waters going to boil.
RICE: His faithful companion lounges on the bunk in the corner.
CRIST: Thats the cat, Spazz.
CRIST: Way to go, Spazz. I spent three days on a lookout without a cat, and thats the only time I swore Id ever do it. Id never do it again. The chipmunks were carrying stuff out as fast as I carried it in, you know. So he keeps them at bay.
RICE: The job of a lookout might seem boring to some people: a full day of watching the horizon, roughly sun up to sun down, with a few breaks thrown in. But Crist doesnt see it that way. He came up here thinking he could use the time to write, but became captivated by the job.
CRIST: My first thought was, yeah, you can come up here, you can get a book written. Well, truth of the matter is, while the suns up that landscape is changing and the moment, its hard to concentrate on something else. Because the moment youre concentrating on something else, its like closing your eyes, you know what I mean? And youre up here because of your eyes, really.
[CRIST TALKING TO DISPATCH]
CRIST: Theres a lot of people down there that dont think lookouts have anything to do until theres a fire come up. But, how do you find it? Its like looking for a needle in the haystack. You keep telling yourself its there, you just havent found it yet.
RICE: When he does see a fire, he uses a device that hasnt changed much since the 30s. Its a telescope that sits at the center of the room, like the navigational equipment on a seagoing ship. By knowing the location of two fixed points you can use it to figure out exactly where the fire is and call in its location. But actually spotting the fires in the first place is the real trick. In the same way that maybe a native Alaskan understands the subtleties of snow and ice, fire lookouts know fire. For instance, lightning fires dont always burn hot. They tend to smolder. So for Crist, fires are like ghosts hiding in the underbrush.
A main feature inside the lookout is a "fire finder" which is used to triangulate the locations of fires. Photo: Guy Hand
CRIST: So it can stay there for a week, two weeks, and just kind of creep around. And it may come up once. But then when that brush burns and the fire continues on its way, if the fuels arent there to keep it real hot, its gone, it doesnt seem to exist, because you cant see it.
RICE: This type of fire behavior, its phantom-like creeping around on the forest floor, is one of the reasons some people still swear by lookouts. Fires like these are nearly impossible to catch from aerial spotter planes.
KRESEK: Air patrols that are put up by the Forest Service, sometimes every day, sometimes twice a day, they still only pass over any given area for an instant.
RICE: Lookout historian Ray Kresek.
KRESEK: And if a lightning strike is smoldering, the odds are great that its not going to be smoking enough to see when that plane goes over.
RICE: Kresek will go as far as to say that reopening more lookouts could save lives. Catching the fires early, before they become big conflagrations, like the blowup that killed four fire fighters this past summer in Washington State. At one time, there had been a manned lookout just a few miles away.
KRESEK: The fire would have been seen sooner had the lookout just two and a half miles away been in service. Theres no doubt in the world it would have been seen before it became five acres. It was five acres before it was reported.
RICE: In fact, some lookouts are being re-manned. Numbers fluctuate, but about 70 are still in operation in Idaho. Many are being preserved for their historical value and, in some cases, you can rent lookouts, as a vacation spot. Its a rethinking of attitudes prevalent in past years, when many lookouts were seen as eyesores that were no longer useful. Some were even burned down, to clear away any signs that they had ever stood. Whatever the future holds, the opportunity to work a lookout still exists, and, as long as thats the case, people like Howard Crist will keep coming back.
CRIST: I keep telling myself every years going to be the last, and thereve been years that I havent been able to do it. And every time I see a lightning storm I start kicking myself and saying, why arent you on top of the mountain, where you belong?
RICE: For Living on Earth, Im Jeff Rice, in Boise, Idaho.
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