Historic towers provide a glimpse into Montana’s past without losing currency in the modern era
By TRISTAN SCOTTiking to the remote mountaintops of the Flathead Valley can be a humbling admonisher of nature’s forces, but some of Montana’s peaks and ridges also bristle with a reminder of mankind’s attempt to subdue that vigor.
Like cabins in the sky, fire lookouts — a term used to describe both a person and a place — rose to prominence a century ago, when wildfire detection became a priority following the massive fires of 1910, and the U.S. Forest Service launched its fire lookout program in earnest.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed more than 5,000 towers across the country, often in remote and inaccessible locations, and today, although modern technology and airplane surveillance play larger roles in spotting flames, the lookout program remains intact.
Forest Service lookouts are usually 15-foot by 15-foot raised cabins encircled by a catwalk and wrapped with windows. Most were built in the 1930s to house firewatchers. At the height of their use in the 1940s, the Forest Service operated more than 3,000 lookouts in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Before their relative luxury, firewatchers often lived in platform tents and climbed tall trees to watch for fires atop crow’s nest platforms.
Fire lookouts first came into existence in 1870 when a watchtower was constructed in Helena. In 1879, the Southern Pacific Railroad posted a watchman over a field of trees in northern California.
The materials necessary for construction were often carried on the backs of men or mules, and the towers were staffed by lone rangers in an effort to spy wisps of smoke and other signs of nascent wildfire.
But since the 1970s many lookout jobs have been eliminated because of advances in satellite and imaging technology. Today, only about 250 actively staffed lookouts remain and exist mostly in remote or highly sensitive areas.
Computerized lightning detection systems and air patrols have taken over much of the role of lookouts in detecting and locating wildfires. But in severe fire seasons, many fire lookouts are still staffed because they offer views not covered by other systems.
In Montana, a strong contingent of fire lookouts still man the towers, holding vigilance over the state’s forested swaths.
Leif Haugen has spent every summer as a fire lookout since 1994, working at various outposts in the Flathead, Lolo and Kootenai national forests, as well as in Glacier National Park, where he spent 12 years at the Numa Ridge Fire Lookout.
Haugen transferred to Thoma Lookout in 2010, the first summer the lookout had been staffed since 1973.
Haugen enjoys the cloistered, contemplative life of a lookout, and his digs — a simple, somewhat primitive one-room structure — serve as both his home and office; however, what it may lack in amenities (neither electricity nor running water are available) is more than compensated for by the majestic, 360-degree views of the world that his perch provides.
With only a remote radio to keep him tethered to the outside world, Haugen’s primary responsibility is to scan the valley floor for any signs of destructive fire activity — one which calls for enduring long stretches of tedium, requires an eagle’s eye and demands quick response the moment fire is spotted or lightning strikes in the distance. He can’t be caught flat-footed.
Haugen has also been an integral force in efforts to maintain the historic integrity of the structures.
Built in 1930, Thoma Lookout has a steeply pitched roof, wooden shingles and a stovepipe. It is one of only four remaining of a particular style and it is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Forest Service decided in 2009 that it wanted to begin staffing the lookout again, it had only received periodic maintenance and had essentially passed into desuetude.
Because of the lookout’s historic nature, Haugen was tasked with meeting various historic standards when building the cabinetry, a bed and the fire finder’s tower, which sits at the center of every lookout structure and allows the lookout to plot, map and identify the coordinates of a fire.
Helping refurbish the tower only strengthened Haugen’s connection to it. The addition of Thoma Lookout to the Flathead National Forest’s fleet of four summer-staffed fire lookouts, which complement Glacier National Park’s five staffed towers, is encouraging to Haugen, who believes the service is irreplaceable.
Fire lookouts continue to be critical front-line components of the Montana forest system’s battle to detect and prevent wildfires, but their roles often go unnoticed, due largely to both the manual nature of the work involved and the quiet, extremely solitary nature of the working environment.
To that end, the Forest Service’s Recreation Cabin and Lookout Rental Program has brought new purpose to these iconic symbols of the backcountry.
The Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, administers the lookout rental program in the national forests of Montana and northern Idaho, where more than 30 lookouts reach above the trees, more than in any other part of the country.
Mary Laws, recreation program manager on the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana, said the rental program offers a two-pronged benefit.
“It serves the dual purpose of restoring historic buildings and getting people out in the woods to enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “It’s a great recreational opportunity and it’s pretty much a self-sustaining program. The rental fees that people pay are returned to the forest because they’re used to pay for the restoration.”
With no electricity or running water, a fire lookout also offers an escape from the general distractions of a cluttered, bustling society, and those with the right demeanor will be content with the stunning panoramic views, a few books and the occasional murmur of a two-way radio for company.