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The West on Fire
Amidst the most catastrophic fires the American West has ever experienced comes a new podcast from the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

"The West on Fire" explores our relationship with fire past, present and future. We learn from dozens of multidisciplinary experts and work towards new ways of thinking about fire in the region.
  1. black and white photo of fire on a mountain shot from a distance
  2. African American firefighters in LA
  3. A picture of Smokey Bear on a sign that reads "Only you can prevent forest fires"
  4. Three people stand looking at the destroyed landscape after a mudflow, one woman has her hands on her head
  5. Fire burns on campfire logs
  6. a man rides his bike across an intersection and the air in hazy
  7. A row of firefighters stand wearing orange fire gear, helmets and black backpacks.
  8. Man looks out into forest from a fire lookout tower.

Lookout Towers Still Play a Role in Fire Monitoring

Man looks out into forest from a fire lookout tower.
A fire spotter looks east from Buck Rock Lookout in Sequoia National Forest, California (July 1941). | Forest History Society
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For over a century, the U.S. Forest Service has posted fire lookouts at the tops of mountains and trees to serve as the eyes for fire crews. Increasingly, those lookouts are being replaced by drones and satellite technology, although there are still advantages to having a trained human with a sharp eye watching over the landscape.

Every summer, Philip Connors keeps watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country: the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. In the clip below, he talks about the role of fire towers in American literary culture and shows how two decades of lookout experience can come in handy where technology falls short.

A dirt path leads up a peak of a mountain to a large eight-by-eight-foot wooden fire lookout tower. Boulders sit at the base of the tower, and an American flag sways next to the tower.
The wooden 20-foot Ranger Peak Lookout stands in San Bernardino National Forest, California (July 1938). | Forest History Society

Fire Tower History

This story was originally published by the U.S. Forest Service

Prior to the devastating 1910 forest fires in Idaho, Montana and Washington, little attention was given to any organized forest fire reporting system. Often referred to as "When the Mountains Roared," the 1910 fires consumed three million acres of prime old-growth timber and killed 85 people.

These disaster provided the impetus for an organized fire lookout network as well as better trail and communications systems. By the late 1930s, over 5,000 fire lookout towers had been constructed. Of the 5,000 lookouts, 611 were built by President Roosevelt's "green army," the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

A man uses mirrors of a heliograph to flash fire messages. Meanwhile, a man standing next to him looks through binoculars.
Two men signal messages at the Black Butte Fire Lookout in Mendicino, CA (August 1923). Heliographs are used in some forest regions to flash fire messages by means of a small mirror and the sun’s rays. | Signal Mirror

Early fire spotters served as "smoke-chasers," identifying and then fighting fires with what tools they could carry — shovels, pulaskis and axes, traveling on foot or by horse. Fire spotters also used a device known as the Osborne Firefinder. Early communication was by means of a heliograph, a device using two mirrors to reflect sunlight, sending Morse code messages.

Eventually, a telephone system was installed using single strands of #9 galvanized wire attached to trees with insulators, providing significantly more efficient communication. By the time lookouts were on the wane, portable radios were standard equipment.

Man stands using circular fire spotting device inside a fire lookout tower
A lookout uses a fire finder to look for smoke. This device is a variation of an alidade, a large disk-shaped instrument used in surveying and mapping. Goat Lake Lookout Tower, Sierra National Forest, California (August 1963). | Leland J. Prater, Forest History Society

In the 1950s, only a few hundred fire lookouts were in service, usually staffed by volunteers. Today, due to the development of infra-red detection devices and the deployment of airplanes and helicopters, the lookout system is still utilized but to a much lesser extent.

The maximum effective range of surveillance for a lookout tower is normally a 20-mile radius. Many of the lookouts are run by forestry students who take the seasonal jobs as part of their professional training. Once the observation post is opened, it operates seven days a week during the fire season.

 A fire tower sits atop a mountain.
A view of Buck Rock lookout station from the east in Sequoia National Forest, California (July 1941). | Norman L. Norris, U.S. Forest Service

The use of fire lookouts reached a peak about 1938. At that time there were more than 800 towers in use each summer in the Northern Region. Since World War II, the number has declined sharply. By 1964, only 250 lookouts were used.

Some of the lookouts are no longer used for fire surveillance and are maintained as scenic vista points for forest visitors. Some are rented for short periods to recreationists. Some are accessible by road and others can be reached only by trails and supplies must be brought in by pack trains.

 Visitors wander the trails leading up to the Slide Mountain lookout tower in Castaic, CA.
Visitors wander the trails leading up to the Slide Mountain lookout tower in Castaic, CA. | Charles White

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