WildfiresLoss of Fire Lookouts Spurs Questions About Historic Preservation

By Sasha Starovoitov

Published 25 October 2021

For decades, fire lookout towers have served as a bridge between the human eye and the surrounding scenery. These former staples of American landscapes are now facing rapid extinction. Decades after their prime, fire lookout towers occupy a precarious position between use and extinction.

For decades, fire lookout towers have served as a bridge between the human eye and the surrounding scenery. From spots high up on mountains, hikers, observers, and naturalists have been able to observe the breathtaking, otherwise inaccessible sights that the lookout towers offer access to—gazing out at glaciers and sweeping mountain ranges, feeling fresh gusts of wind, and finding solace in the solitude that lookouts provide. However, as wildfires and lack of upkeep threaten fire lookouts across the United States, these touchpoints are quickly dying out, taking with them a rich history of American environmental imaginings.

Fire lookout towers have a long relationship with the land they were first constructed to protect. The first U.S. towers, managed by independent lookouts, predate the U.S. Forest Service, which was first established in 1905. At the time, there were already tens of fire lookouts dotting the United States; during their peak, the U.S. Forest Service managed over 8,000 staffed fire lookout towers across 49 states. Now, there are only 300 that are still actively occupied. Many offer one of a kind views of stunning landscape features, such as Sahale Glacier in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. 

Forest fire lookouts first served as crucial outposts for the men and women who watched for wildfires, as they spent long hours and months gazing at the horizon, looking out for smoke or other signs that could point towards a dangerous blaze. The job was, and remains, a lonely one; the fire lookouts live in solitude in the tower, often with no access to running water or electricity. In the early 20th century, wives of forest rangers often served as fire lookouts, as biases against women in forest fieldwork prohibited them from taking on any other role within the Forest Service.

Forest fire lookouts have garnered an almost mythological presence within the American naturalist tradition, in large part due to the several poets who featured fire lookouts within their work during the mid-20th century. Gary Snyder, a decorated American writer and renowned poet whose work often focuses on themes of environmental preservation, famously spent time as a fire lookout at Crater Mountain in 1952.