Region 6: The Last of the Fire Watchers

Bill Austin is one of the lucky few to have the job of manning a fire lookout tower. And as a veteran of more than 25 seasons of scanning the horizon, he’s not about to give up his post. This Filson Life is part of Filson’s celebration of the Forest Service and the people of the Pacific Northwest Region of the USFS, Region 6.

Bill Austin has never been struck by lightning, but at least once a year his office is. 

“I tell people it’s like stepping inside a light bulb and then turning on the light,” he says. “It’s wild.”

Austin works, eats and sleeps 40 feet above the ground, in the Leecher Mountain Lookout tower in Washington state’s Methow Valley. During daylight hours, he scans the Okanogan National Forest for smoke.

“You have to be able to tell dust from smoke. Smoke can be different colors, and dust can be different colors. Different fuels burn in certain colors. After a storm comes through, small clouds above the trees—we call them water dogs—can look like smoke.”

After the devastating fires of 1910 — known as the Big Burn — claimed three million acres and 87 lives, the Forest Service decided that the best way to catch fires early was to put someone with a set of binoculars on the high points of the mountains.

There are a total of 8,778 fire lookout sites in the U.S., and 2,549 of them are still standing today, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. Washington state has 656 lookout sites. Slightly more than 100 of them are standing today, and 30 of them are staffed during fire season. Considering the perks and few openings, lookout jobs are hard to come by.

“I’m one of the lucky few,” he says. “Us old timers, we don’t like to give things up, and I’m not about to give up this.”

Austin has been at the Leecher Mountain Lookout since 2014. Before that he manned the Goat Peak Lookout for 25 summers. Now 65, and he’s been working with the Forest Service for most of his life. His first taste of life as a lookout came when he was five years old. His parents took him to the Goat Peak Lookout, and apparently he told his dad afterward that he wanted the job. As a teenager, he volunteered as a youth lookout, and in the years after held a variety of jobs for the agency, both in the fire world and out of it.

When Bill talks about the day-to-day routine of life as a lookout, he makes it sound as idyllic as you might expect. He waxes about the solitude and the hike-in visitors, about the clear mornings and the violent afternoon storms, and about the constant meditation granted through 360-degree views of wild country.

“I feel the most healthy and alive when I’m there,” he says.

Austin starts his day at 4 a.m. and his watch lasts the daylight hours. He’s vigilant about his role as the eyes in the sky for the Forest Service. Every 15 minutes, he meticulously scans the horizon, starting at true north and focusing on every inch of ridgeline and hilltop between him and the horizon.

“I use the naked eye first,” he says. “If I see something then I go to the binocs. But you have to be patient. If I see something, I turn to it, and just wait and look.”

If he sees smoke, he calls in the location. To help him pinpoint the location of the fire, he uses what’s called an Osborne fire finder. The tool was first developed in 1911, and nearly every fire tower in the U.S. is equipped with one. It consists of a sighting device mounted on a compass on a table. The lookout aligns the smoke through the fire finder sights and reads the azimuth on the compass. The compass is overlain on a map of the area.

Bill’s fire finder gives the location 20 miles from the lookout, meaning that if he points the sight straight east, the map below the compass gives him the township and range of the location 20 miles east of him. If what he sees is actually smoke, then he’s on the radio relaying the information that the fire teams need to respond. But not all those wisps above the treetops are smoke. What you don’t want to do, Bill says, is call in a fire that’s not burning.

Each season offers a different experience, but, according to Austin, the best time to be in a fire lookout tower is during a summer thunderstorm. He loves lightning. The towers are obviously well grounded, and as long as the radio is unplugged from the antenna, watching the electricity fly is great entertainment, he says. The climax is when lightning hits the tower.

“When the clouds start building and the weather turns,” he says, “that’s when the fun starts.”

Story by Will Grant
Photography by Dylan Furst , Megan Taylor Creative, Brandon Scott Herrell