By Tom Persinger
The old tent creaks and buckles under the force of the fierce wind blowing from the west as I sleep. The tall windows of the nearby fire lookout tower rattle and shake. The sun sets behind a distant peak, clouds roll in and the clear blue sky slowly turns to the burnt orange of dusk. It took the better part of a day’s travel to get to the top of this mountain.
The journey began at a small town on a gravel road. With only a general store, a handful of houses, a seasonal restaurant and a hostel, it is really more like an outpost than a town. Where the twisted gravel road stopped, a footpath began. The narrow path moved through a moss-encrusted forest riddled with downed trees and followed the drainage of a cold, clear alpine creek. Near the top, the trees separated on the ridge to reveal an expansive view of a long valley. Just beyond this spot was my destination, a tiny shack balanced on the brow of a mountain. This is the place where Leif Haugen has spent the past several summers. I’ve come to talk with Haugen and get a first-hand peek behind the often-romanticized veneer of what it means to be a fire lookout.
Haugen is a fire lookout with the U.S. Forest Service. During the summer months, his job is to maintain watch over the pristine wilderness that surrounds his remote post a few miles south of the Canadian border in northwest Montana. He’s from Minnesota and learned about the lookout life through literature, securing his first job as a lookout with the help of a friend in 1994. He’s been returning ever since. “It’s a great way to spend the summer,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of choices, but all of the choices are things I enjoy doing: walking, reading, writing, carpentry and taking a good long look around.”
Haugen’s days on the mountain are usually a mix of routine, yet solitary, tasks that include maintaining the lookout, checking in on the radio (twice daily), reporting weather conditions, greeting the occasional visitor and, most importantly, scanning the landscape for signs of fire. In the event of fire, the simple routine is derailed, and he finds himself riveted to a map, radio, binoculars and the incredibly accurate Osborne Fire Finder — a primitive tool that helps him provide critical, up-to-the- minute coordinates and routes of safe passage — for 16 hours a day, supporting those fighting the blaze.
Haugen has spotted numerous fires, several of which were quite large, but none of which was more impressive than the Wedge Canyon Fire of 2003. “The fire conditions that year were unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Haugen. There had been 10 or 15 fires in the area when he saw smoke behind Hornet Peak and immediately began mapping and gathering coordinates. Within three or four minutes, the fire grew so significantly that he quit mapping and radioed dispatch with a report of a highly active fire. He’d “never seen a fire that looked so benign grow so quickly.” Ten minutes after initial detection, he radioed dispatch again, this time simply saying, “You might want to get someone in the air for this one.” The Wedge Canyon Fire burned from July through September, destroying 29 buildings and seven residences while consuming more than 53,000 acres of land.
In the winter months, when Haugen works as a carpenter and builder, he often donates his spare time to rebuilding his lookout in a “way that suits its historic nature.” Using old drawings and photographs, he’s slowly been rebuilding the lookout piece by piece. It has a steeply pitched roof, wooden shingles and a stovepipe and is one of only four of its kind — known as the L4 design — remaining. In the few days prior to my arrival, he used an external frame backpack to carry a new screen door and large, heavy wooden cabinet for the station.
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.