There were once 10,000 lookouts, scanning the wilderness for signs of smoke. Now just a few hundred remain, and they pass the time hiking, writing and knitting. Interested?
Read more from Rory Carroll at The Guardian:
For Levi Brinegar, alone atop his mountain, a storm can feel like the end of the world. Clouds swallow the peak, winds howl and lightning blazes.
“The tower shakes. During the last one the windows cracked. The lightning was 50 feet away. It was like strobe lighting going off. It was crazy.”
Brinegar, 26, endures this, and more, for $12 an hour. He could not be happier. He reckons he has the best job in the world. “It’s fun. I’ll definitely try to get back next year.”
Brinegar is a fire lookout for the US Forest Service. He has spent the summer on a peak in Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark national forest armed with binoculars, a compass and a radio, scanning the wilderness for smoke.
Dozens more like him do the same across the US every summer, perched in 15ft by 15ft wooden cabins atop remote towers with sweeping panoramas, a low-tech, very human first line of defense against conflagrations. They are known, unofficially, as the “freaks on the peaks”.
“We have a certain reputation,” said Leif Haugen, 46, a veteran who trains other lookouts. “It takes a certain type of person to do it. All lookouts have their own individual oddities.”
The challenge, Haugen said, was to accept nature’s rhythm. “New lookouts often have all these plans, they’re going to read all these books, or paint, or photograph, or learn an instrument. Then they’re amazed by how much they just sit there on the catwalk, watching weather. Those who can be content with themselves, and not having a list, have the most success.”
For some, inhabiting a sanctuary of contemplation far from modernity’s noise is a spiritual experience. In the semi-autobiographical story A River Runs Through It, based on his Montana upbringing, Norman Maclean noted: “It doesn’t take much in the way of mind and body to be a lookout. It’s mostly soul.”
When not gazing at clouds for signs of lightning, and forests for plumes of smoke, some lookouts knit, some hike, some study birds, deers, foxes and bears. Quite a few write.
The poet Gary Snyder worked as a lookout in Washington state’s North Cascades. Edward Abbey, who worked as a ranger and lookout in Utah and Arizona in the 1960s and 1970s, captured the job’s mystical appeal in novels such as Desert Solitaire and Black Sun.
Philip Connors quit his editing job at the Wall Street Journal after 9/11 and moved from New York to New Mexico where he has spent 14 summers, keeping vigil over Gila national forest for $13 an hour, and writing about it. “At the beginning I thought of it as a paid writing retreat with good views,” he said in a phone interview. “It has turned into something larger. I’ve become pretty deeply invested in this place.”
Connors, 43, accepted the peak freak moniker. “It’s way of acknowledging we’re the last of a dying breed. And that what we do is pretty far outside the cultural mainstream. We don’t have cable television or high-speed internet. We get paid to look out the window all day.”
Almost all are manned by just one person but some have couples, such as Chuck Manning, 71, head of the Northwest Montana chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, and his wife. “I think it’s a great experience for a couple to be in a small lookout,” he said. “You’re in a very confined area. You really learn to get to know each other.”
Staffed lookout towers began a century ago, peaked at about 10,000 in the 1950s, then gradually declined to just a few hundred. Wisconsin has become the latest state to close its last towers, deeming aircraft and cameras cheaper and safer.
Volunteers maintain and restore some former lookouts to safeguard the heritage. The Forest Service rents out many decommissioned towers as holiday rentals.
In Montana, New Mexico and other parts of the west the numbers of staffed, operational lookouts has stabilized over the past decade, stalling, if not reversing, the trend towards obsolescence.
It seems human eyes and intelligence can still do things that drones, satellites and infrared cameras cannot.
One reason is the policy of letting more fires burn. Fires can actually benefit ecosystems by clearing brush and regenerating forests. But they can swiftly explode out of control, hence the need for constant vigilance.
“The techno-fetishists always dream of replacing us (but) we can do things for firefighters on the ground that a camera attached to a drone just can’t do,” said Connors, noting that many lookouts stay in the job for decades, acquiring deep knowledge of terrain and weather.
Another reason is the increasingly unpredictable fire behavior. They burn fiercer, bigger and more frequently – a new normal attributed in part to climate change. “Fire behavior has ramped up. It’s different to what it used to be,” said Haugen, a lookout near Montana’s border with Canada for 23 years.
Record-high temperatures and drought-induced tinderbox conditions can turn a spark into a wall of flame within minutes. A recent example is the Blue Cut fire in California, which destroyed hundreds of structures, torched 37,000 acres and forced 80,000 people to flee.
Lookouts are tasked with spotting puffs of smoke early, feeding correct coordinates to fire crews and averting such disasters.
“Every time I see that smoke I get real excited,” said Brinegar, clutching binoculars as he circled the catwalk on the Stonewall tower, 8,270ft above Montana’s majestic wilderness, the Rockies in the distance.
The dirt path up to the tower winds through swathes of charred, spectral trees, the legacy of a 2003 inferno from which this part of the forest has yet to recover – a stark reminder of what is at stake.
Since taking over the outpost in July – this is his first season – Brinegar has called four fires, including one on Nevada Mountain, 17 miles away. Each time helicopters and ground crews doused the blazes before they exploded.
Upon spotting smoke, a lookout uses a table-sized 360-degree compass known as a fire finder to identify the location, then relays it to base. Twice Brinegar has confused mist known as water dogs with smoke, a common rookie mistake. “I’ve learned to take my time if I’m not sure, wait maybe 10 minutes before calling it.”
Most days are uneventful: rise at 7am, breakfast on military rations (there is electricity and a stove but the former infantry soldier prefers rations to cooking), check in with base, scope the landscape, measure humidity, file a weather report, lunch, more scoping, a supper of potatoes and sausages, maybe a DVD, sunset, bed.
Brinegar savors the solitude. Having grown up in rural California he finds cities crowded and noisy. “I’m not a people person. I miss the woods, the quiet. Being by yourself you figure out what you want to do with your life.”
When not on duty he hikes and checks out deer, goats and other wildlife. The tower’s heavy door is studded with spikes to deter grizzlies, but he has yet to see one. He does, however, wear a bearskin cape, bought online for $300.
Storms are exciting and nerve-wracking, said Brinegar, who sports a long, auburn beard. “It feels like a miniature earthquake. The water in your glass sways.” With 90mph winds roaring and hail hammering the panes he hunkers on a wooden stool – “the lightning seat” – which has glass jars on its feet to insulate it against conducting electricity. The tower also has lightning rods and grounding cables to protect against a direct strike.
Every five to seven days Brinegar rides an all-terrain vehicle down to Lincoln (population 1,100) for a night or two, then returns. There is phone signal, so he can text and email, but otherwise has little human contact beyond his twice-daily radio reports.
Fire season here will end when the snows come, perhaps later this month. Until then Brinegar will continue his vigil and maybe, he said with a sheepish grin, watch The Shining a few more times. “I’ve watched it five times already.”