Haugen’s lookout at night. Photo: Tom Persinger
Fire lookouts have been in existence since 1870 when a watchtower was constructed in Helena, Mont. In 1879, the Southern Pacific Railroad posted a watchman over a field of trees in northern California. Following the massive fires of 1910, fire detection became a priority with the Forest Service, and the lookout program peaked in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed more than 5,000 towers across the country. Frequently built in remote and inaccessible locations, the materials necessary for construction were often carried on the backs of men or mules. 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.
Haugen is one of many who are maintaining the fire lookout tradition into the 21st century. Some come for just one season, but others return year after year and structure their lives around their time in the wilderness. No one chooses to be a lookout for money. Instead, they reap the intangible rewards of a life lived simply and directly, in rhythm with the time of nature, receiving bonuses that cannot be measured by conventional means while protecting some of our last wild places.
In the first light of dawn, I unzip the tent and immediately feel a cold, sharp wind. I peek out to see the sun rising over the mountains. It illuminates the soft bed of clouds that fill the valley and makes silhouettes of the eastern peaks. And I see why Haugen comes back year after year.
Tom Persinger is a photographer and writer based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Read more at www.tompersinger.com.