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Fire towers
March 2, 2009 11:43 PM   Subscribe

The fire tower, or fire lookout, was one of the main wildfire-fighting tools of forest services across the world for much of the 20th century. Most are small cabins, alone or placed on 80-foot steel towers; these are then placed on top of peaks, giving them an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. (There are some exceptions, of course.) Operators in the towers, equipped with binoculars and firefinders, spent their days searching for smoke or lightning strikes, which would be pinpointed and radioed in for firefighters. (The lookout operators, who staff the towers for a season at a time straight, have a life that is generally pretty solitary and quiet, though sometimes rather intense.) At peak, there were thousands of fire towers across North America; while most of these no longer exist, a few hundred are still active.

The FFLA maintains a fairly comprehensive list of most towers, active or historical, in the US, with pictures and notes. In addition, many active lookouts maintain their own pages: Rex Kamstra has a good list. For more contemporary photography, there's also a gallery on Flickr.
posted by Upton O'Good (35 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember Frank Herbert writing that he wrote Dune while on a fire tower. He took a hundred pounds of blank pages and a wife to the tower and wrote the thing there.

Wikipedia has some conflicting information.

Ever since, I've dreamed of getting a job like this. I guess I will have to get used to sitting on a bar stool looking at my potted plants.
posted by dirty lies at 11:58 PM on March 2, 2009


Climb the rickety Apple Pie Hill firetower in the pine barrens of Chatsworth, NJ, and you can see both Atlantic City and Philadelphia on a clear day.
posted by pantsonfire at 11:59 PM on March 2, 2009


There's an unused fire lookout close to me. A friend of mine took his date for a day trip up there. The weather turned bad and they had to stay overnight with the lookout as shelter. Both are fairly experienced outdoors people, so there was no big problems. Today they're married, but I still don't know if I'd recommend "getting stuck in a blizzard" as a good theme for a date.
posted by Harald74 at 12:07 AM on March 3, 2009


I didn't see this guy mentioned. There's more if you google around. As a kid, in the 50s, I went up into a fire lookout and heard the ranger explain his work. I thought it was a cool job then, I think it is a cool job now.
posted by CCBC at 12:23 AM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Australia also has networks of fire towers, many of which in Western Australia are carved directly into giant kauri trees. You can still climb them, using the metal stakes hammered into the trees as stairs. Going up the 60 or so metres is scary. Going down even more scary. Coming down while someone is going up is one of life's brown trouser moments.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:25 AM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


We climbed up in a fire watch tower once. What was most impressive was how small it was to spend an entire day in.
posted by Cranberry at 12:27 AM on March 3, 2009


There are places where you can vacation in a fire tower.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:41 AM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apparently, it was a good job for writers.
Famous people who have worked as fire lookouts include:

Jack Kerouac, whose books The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Lonesome Traveler include accounts of his job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades during the summer of 1956.
Edward Abbey, who was a fire lookout at Mt. Harkness (1966; Lassen National Park), Atacosa (1968; Coronado National Forest), North Rim (1969-1971; Grand Canyon National Park), Numa Ridge (1975; Glacier National Park), and Aztec Peak (1977-1979; Tonto National Forest).
Doug Peacock, who was a fire lookout at Huckleberry and Scalplock in Glacier National Park from 1976 to 1984.
Gary Snyder, who was a fire lookout at Crater Peak and Sourdough Mountain in the North Cascades.
Philip Whalen, who was a fire lookout on Sourdough Mountain and Sauk Mountain in the North Cascades.
It probably didn't require much in the way of skills, either, other than to be satisfied with sitting alone on top of a mountain with little to do but look out at things.
posted by pracowity at 12:54 AM on March 3, 2009


Cool post.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:16 AM on March 3, 2009


I have visited this lookout several times. Mr. Shifafa owns a cabin on the Salmon River, just a few miles from the lookout, and he knows the gal who has worked there every summer for maybe 15 years. During the awful 2007 fire season in Idaho/Montana she was pretty much living up there, getting very little sleep due to all the activity. I have watched her using the old analog equipment to determine where a fire is, map it, and direct the firefighters from her high perch -- I found it fascinating. It takes an amazing amount of skill and experience to do it well. She hates GPS and says it's made everyone lazy, and allows the Forest Service to think it's okay to deploy firefighters who are not familiar with the area in which they are working. And, indeed, every firefighter we met during 2007 was from a different state.
posted by shifafa at 2:03 AM on March 3, 2009


"Climb the rickety Apple Pie Hill firetower in the pine barrens of Chatsworth, NJ, and you can see both Atlantic City and Philadelphia on a clear day."

Motivating us not to climb it?
posted by orthogonality at 2:09 AM on March 3, 2009


Thanks for this post! I have to say, this has always been one of my dream jobs, but it probably wouldn't turn out the way I'd want it to. I'd expect I'd be able to get a lot of writing done, and I'd march up the mountain with naught but my laptop, ready to put my whole discipline into the creation of a new novel. And within 45 minutes I'd be naked, drawing spirals on my body and yelling at imaginary people.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:28 AM on March 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


Awesome post.

"with naught but my laptop"

It'd be nice, but those poor pack animals have a hard enough time bringing you food, water, and wood. I'm pretty sure you've only got batteries enough for your radio.
posted by bardic at 3:57 AM on March 3, 2009


It'd be nice, but those poor pack animals have a hard enough time bringing you food, water, and wood. I'm pretty sure you've only got batteries enough for your radio.

Netbook + solar = win.

Besides, there have been efficient portable computers for years. Radio Shack/Tandy used to sell a RAM/ROM only mobile computer as far back as about 1986 that was extremely popular with writers and journalists for back-country or on the road word processing. Considering it had a modem, a text editor and a terminal program and it ran for about a week on common AA or C cell batteries it was quite a usable mobile computer.

I saved up all summer to buy one of the NEC versions. 300 baud modem, a whopping 32k of battery-backed RAM. But I could dial BBSes from unguarded telephone ports while at school. In 1989. It was awesome like having a rocket belt.
posted by loquacious at 4:19 AM on March 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


When Mrs. winks007 and I were visiting a friends camp in the Homochitto Nat'l Forest, we made sure to spend some quality time in one of those towers. I have to admit, it was swaying in the wind before we made it to the top. We remember it fondly though. Good times, good times.
posted by winks007 at 4:49 AM on March 3, 2009


I used to seek these out. In Michigan I've been to Boon, Briar Hill, Monacle, Star Lake, Udell Hill, and Ward's Hill (incorrectly listed as Ware).
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 5:09 AM on March 3, 2009


Dream job for a novelist? I wonder how many times the wind blew away a day's work. (It's usually windy on top of most of the towers I've climbed.)
posted by notmtwain at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2009


I guess that explains why Kerouac wrote on one continuous roll of paper.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:40 AM on March 3, 2009


It'd be nice, but those poor pack animals have a hard enough time bringing you food, water, and wood. I'm pretty sure you've only got batteries enough for your radio.

You mean the woodland creatures wouldn't come to my aide to provide me with lithium batteries, a sat link, and DVDs? Have years of playing as a Ranger been for naught?
posted by The Whelk at 5:40 AM on March 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


I actually had no idea that these were a normal thing. I've only ever seen one in Reading, PA. I thought it was just one of those wacky things that Reading has, like our Pagoda.
posted by pete0r at 6:02 AM on March 3, 2009


As a young teen, I enjoyed the idea of meeting a nice, lonely ranger in one of those towers.
posted by Goofyy at 6:07 AM on March 3, 2009


MuffinMan wrote "You can still climb them, using the metal stakes hammered into the trees as stairs. Going up the 60 or so metres is scary. Going down even more scary. Coming down while someone is going up is one of life's brown trouser moments."

Oh yeah! I remember climbing one about 18 years ago as a kid visiting my brother who had emigrated to Perth. By the time I got to the top I was physically shaking. The climb down was made far far worse by a group of bikers climbing up.

Absolutely terrifying. But one of those experiences I will never forget.
posted by schwa at 6:34 AM on March 3, 2009


That firefinder is actually pretty cool piece of tech. I like the idea that in the late 1920s, a couple of these towers could use these to pinpoint the source of a fire with surprising accuracy.

I also like the fact that after the company stopped making them, suddenly everyone seemed to realize that this wasn't a kind of gear that we should just lose, so efforts were made to keep the replacement parts available.

Still used old technology like this is a passion of mine.
posted by quin at 7:56 AM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've got fond memories of the fire tower in Knob Lick, Missouri. (That's only the first of two improbably named places in my story.)

I worked four summers during my teens at a scout ranch there, and even eagle scouts can get bored during the down times on the job and cause trouble. Fireworks of most all sorts are legal in Missouri, and one seasonal store named "Blow Your Hand Off" was more than happy to take our business. $10 was enough to buy plenty of firepower, and we usually dropped $50 or more each per visit. Mostly we'd get roman candles and bottle rockets. Then, we'd drive to the base of Knob Lick mountain and divide up into two teams. And then, the race was on.

The goal was to take possession of the fire tower (unmanned and locked, but still accessible if you knew how), and to hold it at the time everyone ran out of fireworks. Yes, we used them as weapons, and yes, having the high ground is a great advantage. We had great fun, and it was kind of like playing laser tag with real lasers.

No one lost a hand, or an eye, but there were always a few minor burns here and there, mostly from misfires. There were few if any direct hits, but I tell you -- you don't want to get under a roman candle getting shot at you from above.

Anyway, that's my story. Kids, don't do what I did.
posted by ewagoner at 7:57 AM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks, this is a great post.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:22 AM on March 3, 2009


Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

(Gary Snyder)
posted by Iridic at 8:26 AM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is cool; there are a few of these left in the Sumter National Forest near my house, although it seems they are slowly being torn down. One in particular is easily accessible by road, yet enough off the beaten path that during the 70's and 80's it was a popular nocturnal destination for my friends and me to climb late at night if there was nothing else to do. I have also seen the army using it for communications practice, climbing up it and setting up an antenna at the top (the Signal Corps is based nearby). It is only a couple of miles from my house; I need to go check it out. It is listed on one of the linked websites as in unknown condition, so maybe I can update it for them.
posted by TedW at 8:58 AM on March 3, 2009


It's been my experience that the people who work on these towers, after spending months isolated and alone, gradually descend into psychopathy and try to kill their loved ones. My experience kind of taints my enjoyment of these things.
posted by Dr. Send at 11:02 AM on March 3, 2009


Really great firetower in Dorset Ontario, near the village of Dorset, on the east side of Lake of Bays. The location was once a working fire lookout that became a popular attraction, due to its easy access from the highway. In the 60's the wooden tower was replaced with a steel tower which is alleged to have been a surplus tower intended for use on the northern anti-aircraft radar system (the DEW line).

The tower itself is 82' high, and it's on a hill that's itself about 200 ft above the normal level, so the view is spectacular.

I don't have any of my Dorset pics online, but pictures come up if you Google for "dorset fire tower".
posted by Artful Codger at 11:06 AM on March 3, 2009


Okay, clearly this Stringers Knob tower is completely made up:

"Mr. H. Galbrath, Divisional Forester for East Gippsland [...]
The Stringer's Knob Tower overlooks the Orbost flats and the coastline from east of Marlo to Lake Tyers. In the other direction it covers the Snowy River Valley as far as Gelantipy, Mt. Deddick and a large portion of the Nowa Nowa district."


C'mon, you're just making those names up as you type...
posted by mrnutty at 11:32 AM on March 3, 2009


The Dorset lookout tower is why I'm afraid of heights now. I was TOTALLY FINE with heights until I got halfway up, stupidly looked down through the metal grate-stairs, and subsequently froze up and whimpered like a sad puppy. I got out of there as fast as I could and sat in the car.
posted by avocet at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2009


I used to have this book and sadly mourn its loss. Full reviews of a boatload of lookouts, cabins and such through the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately I'm a bit far from the PNW to take full advantage of the listings but the occasion that I did was quite wonderful. Turns out our forest steward governmental types maintain a large number of these sorts of lodgings for the supercheap (ours was and still is a whopping $20/night).
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2009


Also check out "Firetowers, Lookouts & Rustic Cabins for Rent," your library may have one. Otherwise, remember: Inter-Library Loan is your friend.
posted by Marky at 12:53 PM on March 3, 2009


> The Dorset lookout tower is why I'm afraid of heights now.

heh. I generally have no problems with heights but the Dorset tower did give me a rush when I looked down the stairs. Didn't stop me from continuing to the top, though :-)
posted by Artful Codger at 3:56 PM on March 3, 2009


mrnutty, why do those names amuse you? I mean, stringers knob, sure, but the rest of them are pretty ordinary (and yes they do all exist, I was there last week).

Nice post, though I don’t know why it was written in the past tense. Fire towers are still a major part of our fire detection effort here in Victoria, absolutely not able to be replaced by satellites yet. We have 89 of them, manned all season.
posted by wilful at 5:10 PM on March 3, 2009


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