A Short History of U.S. Fire Lookouts


Imagine you’re in solitary confinement, holed up in a glass box perched atop a mountain, scanning the surrounding forested terrain for wildfire signs. A fire lookout’s job is self-explanatory. To some, it’s prison. To others, it’s paradise.

If there is no lightning or fires, the day is mostly yours to whittle away—with some requirements. Building maintenance, catching mice, washing windows. Measuring temperature, wind speed, humidity, precipitation, and percentage of cloud cover to file a weather report twice per day. Acting as a wilderness secretary who relays messages to people in the field, in aircraft, and to the public. The rest of the time is a matter of creativity: reading, writing, making art, studying maps, but always vigilantly being the eyes of the forest, watching the dance of light and cloud upon the landscape.

fire lookout tower
binoculars on a fire lookout table

Starting in the late 1800s, lumber companies and rural communities in the Northeast built and used fire towers to protect valuable timber. After the Great Fire of 1910, which burned three million acres across Idaho, Montana, and Washington in two days and killed 85 people, the United States began a national discourse about prevention and built more towers.

After this disaster, the Forest Service’s policy evolved to require “putting fires to rest by 10 a.m.” The fire lookout, a post generally occupied by rugged single men, played a crucial role: spotting the nascent fire with binoculars, then using a firefinder—a rotating steel disc mounted to the center of the building and attached to sighting mechanisms–in combination with paper maps to locate it. He would then hike with a Pulaski axe, shovel, and water and do his best to extinguish the fire if it was still small.

As science advanced, and we looked to the knowledge of the past, we began to understand that fires are a natural ingredient of healthy forests.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, forming the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in response to the Great Depression, putting millions of young men to work building roads, trails, and fire lookouts. From the 1930s to the ‘50s, the CCC constructed over 4,000 lookouts, mainly in the West.

As science advanced, and we looked to the knowledge of the past, we began to understand that fires are a natural ingredient of healthy forests. Now, lookouts radio a fire into an emergency communications center, where fire management officers decide to either let it burn or, if it’s threatening communities, determine the most effective ways to put it out with fire-suppression aircraft and field crews.

Today, drones and satellites have made fire lookouts increasingly obsolete. Fewer than 900 lookouts remain, and only 166 of those are still staffed. But technology will never be able to watch a fire for 24 hours straight, watch smoke linger, then ignite after two weeks, or communicate fire behavior by talking as real humans. This old way of seeing doesn’t have to die with the times.