Freaks on the Peaks, the History of US Fire Lookout Towers

Phoebe James
AirBnB

Dotted on remote peaks across the National Forests of the United States are hundreds of fire lookout towers.

For more than a century, an army of paid and volunteer lookouts have kept vigil from these watch towers, scanning the surrounding acres of woodland / wilderness for signs of smoke.

Despite advances in technology and proposals for automation, several States still rely on the unwavering eye of these fondly nicknamed “freaks on the peaks” as a key part in their wildfire defense.

Living in romantic solitude, these men and women spend the entire summer fire season in a small, isolated cabin.

Some firewatchers work a single season, while others return to their post year after year. Veterans develop an invaluable knowledge of the terrain and weather on their patch.

One watcher who retired in 2017 had worked for 35 years at Devil’s Head Lookout Tower in Pike Forest National Park, Colorado, spending every summer with his wife and children in a cabin the couple built at its base.

Lookout tower at Devil’s Head. Glennfcowan CC BY 3.0

Bill Ellis gained a legendary reputation among the firefighting community for his uncanny skill in directing them to the precise location of even the smallest wisp of smoke from a smoldering trunk.

The Devil’s Head tower utilizes a steep rocky outcrop for its elevation instead of steel or wood. The firewatcher’s lookout is reached by climbing 143 precariously steep steps that hug the rock face.

From this vantage-point at elevation 9,748 feet, on a clear day Ellis was able to see at least 100 miles in every direction.

Thanks to firewatchers like him, there are scores of wildfires that began but you have never heard of.

The tallest active fire lookout tower in the U.S. is Woodworth Fire Tower in Alexander State Forest, Louisiana. Built in 1951 and standing proud at 175 feet, this steel behemoth is a topped with a 49 square feet observation cab.

It is held firm against the hurricane force winds that sometimes tear through the area by concrete foundations laid 15 feet deep.

The Park Point Fire Lookout in was constructed in 1939

While today the lookout towers are managed by the United States Forest Service, the earliest firewatcher lookouts were set up by private lumber companies, townships and State Forestry services.

Early lookouts used tall trees or convenient high peaks as their observation point.

On June 10, 1905, the first purpose-built wooden tower began operation. It was constructed on Big Squaw (now called Big Moose) Mountain, Maine, by M.G. Shaw Lumber Company, and its watchman that day was 19-year-old William Hilton.

By the 1940s there were more than 4,000 active towers, as well as a number of fire lookout trees.

A huge number of these were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a voluntary public works program that operated between 1933 and 1942 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression era New Deal.

CCC boys leaving camp for home; Lassen National Forest, California

During World War II some lookouts, especially those stationed on the West Coast, additionally took on the role of Enemy Aircraft Spotters.

These days, good-weather weekends are not such lonely times for fire watchers. Dedicated trail routes to many towers can make these busy times for the lookout on duty – a perfect opportunity to distribute wildfire prevention educational information.

The towers also act as a place of emergency assistance for hikers and, whether preserved or abandoned, as way-markers or a hike destination. As technology continues to advance, the era of human fire lookouts is drawing to a close.

 

Crystal Peak Lookout. Credit AirBnB

Most historic fire lookout towers have now been decommissioned, with some being renovated and turned into rentals in recent years and AirBnB have a cool one you can rent.

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Preserved towers are listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. If you want to spend a few nights in the spiritual sanctuary of one of these unique eyries, the Forest Fire Lookout Association should be your first port of call.