Fire Lookouts – From Hermit's Castles to Weekend Get-A-Ways

Fire Lookouts

The fire lookout started as a means of early detection of forest fires. Today its new role is as a week-end get-a-way.

Fire Lookouts – From Hermit’s Castles to Weekend Get-A-Ways
Fire lookouts once dotted maps of the American West. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture. The agency was responsible for protecting America’s forests. Forest managers quickly realized that the key to suppressing wildfires was to discover them while they were still small, and rangers were sent to the top of mountains to watch for smoke. The first lookouts were primitive, being a one man pup tent near a tall tree that was climbed to look for smoke. After the devastating fires of 1910 the Forest Service made early fire detection the priority. The Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) in the 1930s was responsible for the construction of more than 8,000 towers with panoramic views around the United States. This included 989 in Idaho, 639 in Montana and 656 in Washington. The high metal towers were discovered to attract lightning, and lookouts were fitted with grounding devices after a few lightning strikes resulted in the death of the spotters. The new model of towers changed the roles of the smoke spotters for the next 20 years. They now watched for smoke; mapped the location, size and other information of the fire using the Osborne fire finder, and reported the fire to headquarters via messenger, telephone line, or radio.

The life in a lookout was solitary and took a man or woman with a strong sense of humor. A spotter at the Squawman Lookout in northeast Washington once reported monkeys were throwing coconuts at the tower. A lookout on Timber Mountain on the Colville National Forest wrote a poem in 1948:
I like FS biscuits;
Think they’re mighty fine.
One rolled off the table
And killed a pal of mine.

I like FS coffee;
Think it’s mighty fine.
Good for cuts and bruises
Just like iodine.

I like FS corned beef;
It really is okay.
I fed it to the squirrels;
Funerals are today.

The need for fire lookouts declined during the 1940s with the arrival of air patrol and modern technology. During the 1960s and 1970s most towers were abandoned, and subsequently removed to restore wilderness values and to prevent vandalism. There are 17 lookout towers that remain standing in North Idaho, and only the Middle Sister Lookout tower in the Idaho Panhandle Forest of Shoshone County is still manned (with volunteers). However, the USFS has started a new program allowing people to rent a lookout for as little as $40.00 a day at You may not have Wi-Fi or big screen television, but the views are breath-taking. Don’t forget your camera!