Update, July 1, 2013: After this piece was published, the Yarnell Hills wildfire in Arizona killed 19 firefighters.
As wildfire season peaks this summer and Colorado recovers from a destructive 15,500-acre fire, U.S. Forest Service employees, stationed on remote mountaintops, will keep watch across the country. Lookouts like these men and women have served the Forest Service, state agencies, and private landowners for more than a century, and have developed a rich tradition of self-sufficiency and Americana.
But lookouts have increasingly been rendered useless by encroaching development, smoke-detecting pattern-recognition software, GPS, cellphones, widespread Internet access, and cameras. Mountains that once were far from civilization now have highways and residential developments nearby, and civilians can immediately call in a fire from their cellphones. Reconnaissance airplanes can fly over a fire and use GPS to pinpoint a position. And the Forest Service and state agencies are installing rotating cameras in lookout towers that send images back to their dispatch centers.
Over the last 30 to 40 years, the number of lookouts employed around the country has decreased steadily. Only 826 out of 2,552 lookout stations are staffed, according to a compilation by the Forest Fire Lookout Association. And about 6,225 lookout towers have been knocked down.
This trend is clearly cost-effective. Employees require pay (the lowest I’ve found is $8.53 per hour), and lookout stations need frequent maintenance. There are hosts of safety issues. Installing a camera, meanwhile, is a one-time cost with few recurring expenses and virtually no dangers involved.
In Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, Mount Ord will soon be home to a 355-degree rotating camera that sends a feed to a dispatch center in Phoenix, 50 miles southwest of the mountain. The camera will cost about $700 and should be installed by the end of this wildfire season, said Tonto deputy fire manager Helen Graham.
Graham declined to discuss specific staffing details, but Mount Ord lookout Robert Brownell, who has been a lookout in various locations around the country since 1994, said he expects to be out of a job. Cutting his position should make up for the cost of the camera in no more than a couple of weeks.
Those savings are the upside of this trend. The downside is the death of an American icon. Lookouts are more than government employees. They represent the independence that Americans want to see in themselves.
Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, described the 1930s as the first heyday of wildfire lookouts, as the New Deal employed young men as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. A significant portion of the CCC’s work focused on forestry, wildlife, and fighting wildfires, and this increased the number of lookouts employed by the Forest Service. But the occupation made its mark on American culture in the 1950s and ’60s, when literary figures including Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean worked as lookouts and drew inspiration from the seclusion of their mountains. Lookouts simultaneously reflect the quest to conquer nature that dominated American environmental policy in the first half of the 20th century, and the Buddhism-influenced sense of oneness with nature that inspired writers like Kerouac and Snyder.
Snyder reflected on the life of a lookout and its peaceful sense of seclusion in his poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout”:
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.