This weekend, from June 27th through the 29th, Darby, Montana will be hosting the annual Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Western Regional Conference—perfect timing as we dive deeper into Fort Missoula’s own historic lookout with a real lookout as our guide! This afternoon, my friend Allison Linville swung by Fort Missoula on her way home from Hamilton, where she currently works dispatch for wild land fire after four years of working as a lookout. We walked out onto the grounds and headed for the Forestry exhibition, which includes a small shack dedicated to the history of the timber industry (My favorite part of that one? A picture of workers posing outside the Tom Cruise Mine), the Miller Creek Guard Cabin (ca. 1910) and the Sliderock Lookout (1933)—both of which I mentioned briefly in my last post about smokejumping. We climbed the lookout tower, constructed of four beams and a set of wooden stairs, to the square cabin perched on top. The cabin is surrounded on all sides by big windows meant to show the entire horizon, each one guarded from the sun by wood shutters functioning as awnings. I asked Allison about pulling the shutters down to protect the lookout windows, but she said that only very rarely would you close the shutters. As a lookout, your top priority is watching the weather and the changing landscape, so naturally you want your windows up.
“In order to be a lookout, you really have to love maps and weather,” Allison says. We’re standing on the catwalk watching the clouds move eastward towards Mt. Sentinel. To the north, we can just make out the snow-covered Mission Mountains, to the south, Lolo Peak is dappled in shadow. Over the course of ten minutes, the landscape changes: the wind changes, the patches of light and dark shift, the clouds open up and the sky emerges. As I mentioned in my previous post, Allison worked at a remote lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where she did not have any access to internet, electricity or cell phone reception. I say that I imagine that watching the weather change would be like a lookout’s version of reality TV. Allison laughs and says, “Sure, but remember that most lookouts have internet and electricity and cell phone reception now. Not mine, but a lot of the others aren’t as remote.”
Even the radio isn’t a great source of personal connection. When a lookout talks on their radio, anyone tuned into that radio frequency can hear them: the dispatchers, the firefighters, other lookouts, even friends in town who happen to be listening, which means that talk must be kept professional and to the point. “To be a lookout, you need to have a really deep understanding of fire behavior, but probably the other most important qualifications is being able to communicate effectively and succinctly. To know what is important to communicate and to know what isn’t important—when you should stay silent.” If you’re on top of a mountain, like Allison was, your radio waves will reach pretty much everyone.
Inside, the Sliderock Lookout is fairly sparse. There’s a small, wood-burning stove for cooking, a few cabinets—one of them containing a First Aid kit and a snakebite kit—the Osborn in the center of the room, with an old fashioned telephone that would presumably connect the lookout to dispatch, and a bed in the corner flanked by a water container. “Water is a huge issue when you’re a lookout. Sometimes you’ll have a spring nearby you can hike down to, but other times they just have to pack water up to you on mules, at least if you’re in the wilderness. I didn’t have a spring, but I had access to a huge snow bank until about mid-July. A good chunk of time was dedicated to hiking down to the snow, packing up my USFS canvas bags with as much snow as I could carry, allowing it to melt in gallon jugs, and then filtering it the next day. Then, of course, I’d go back for more, always carrying my radio.” (In land designated as wilderness, wheels are prohibited, so pack animals are the only way to get supplies in.)
A typical day for Allison consisted of a 7:00 am wake up followed by a quick run. She would make breakfast and listen to NPR on an old school radio before taking the weather at 9:00. “Does taking the weather just mean looking around and saying, it’s cloudy?” I ask, reminding myself that the only dumb question is the one that isn’t asked. She looks at me like I’m crazy. “No,” she says. Apparently there’s a lot more to it! Every lookout is supplied with a belt weather kit, which includes a wind gauge and a sling psychrometer, with which you can take temperature and relative humidity. “The digital ones just aren’t as reliable,” she explains, further convincing me that living at a lookout is like stepping back into history. “At 10 am, every lookout calls in their weather to dispatch. Winds, temperature, relative humidity, visibility, cloud cover. Precipitation and lightning over the past twenty four hours.” After calling in the weather, Allison would hang out and watch for fires, carefully scanning the horizon in every direction every 15 to 20 minutes. She would write, read, listen to NPR, do creative projects, go for walks (again, always with her radio), and my favorites—do lunges around the lookout and hold solo dance parties.
That sounds like a pretty simple day, but Allison went on to describe the responsibility that lookouts have when crews are actually fighting fires—something that I hadn’t even thought of! “Later in the summer, you have crews on the ground and that is a huge responsibility for lookouts. As a lookout, you’re responsible for crew safety and monitoring the weather. They are down in the thick of things, so you’re their eyes from up above, watching for changes in wind direction and erratic fire movement. You need to have a really thorough understanding of fire behavior and the different types of clouds. Then you can radio down to the incident commander on the ground as well as your supervisor.” Sometimes, smoke obscures the landscape so much that even the lookout has trouble monitoring the fire behavior. Allison told me one story in which she knew a friend was in a cabin monitoring a fire in the valley, but the valley was so smoke-y that neither of them could really see; Allison couldn’t get eyes on the base of the fire, so she couldn’t describe the movement of the flames. She saw a huge plume of smoke rise above the low-lying smoke, so she knew the fire was active but she couldn’t quite see the direction or speed of the spread. Talk about a high-pressure job!
After our tour, I went back to the archives to uncover more about Sliderock Lookout. How did the Fort Missoula acquire it, for instance? And how the heck did they get it to Fort Missoula? I pulled out a file about an inch and a half thick, full of correspondence about the Sliderock Lookout. Boy, was this file an eye opener! Like so many other Fort Missoula visitors, I always took the lookout for granted—I thought it was cool, but I didn’t give much thought to the effort it took to erect it.
Sliderock Lookout was designed by Clyde Fickes, a Montana-based Forest Ranger whose career with the USFS spanned 37 years and covered the most formative years of the service, beginning in 1907 under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. In 1972, Fickes wrote a book about his experiences, which range from fighting fire during heavy fire seasons; hunting elk poachers in the frigid winter of 1916-1917; repeatedly getting mistaken for a German spy while counting agricultural livestock for a census done in 1917 (“another boondoggle generated by war hysteria,” he calls it); surviving the year of the yellow jackets (“There were millions of them. Men were stung on the lips and face while trying to eat—bite into a slice of bread and there would be a dozen yellow jackets trying to beat you to it.”); and many, many more. In 1927, he was moved from the Nezperce Forest to Sandpoint, Idaho, where he came up with the design of the 12’ x 12’ pop-up lookout, lookouts that were constructed of various parts and then packed up to the lookout sites as kits, where they could be easily reconstructed. Here’s how he describes the process:
“Each individual piece was shown and numbered on the plans. Detailed instructions accompanied the plans as to the procedure to be followed in erecting the building. Millwork, such as window sash and door, were all standard millwork which could be purchased in any lumberyard along with the hardware. No item needed special fabrication. Then it was decided to build a sample to prove out the plans. At a lumberyard in Missoula, I made arrangements to purchase the materials, and for a place to cut the material. I hired two carpenters to do the cutting, and I did some of the work myself. The bundled material was hauled down to the Lolo Forest and packed up to the top of Mt. Baldy, a lookout point on the Superior Ranger Distrcit. Then Joe Halm and I went up to the Lookout and put the building together, using only a hammer, screwdriver, and carpenter’s level. The total cost of less than $400.”
The following year, Fickes and his family moved to Missoula. That year, the 12’ x 12’ standard readicut lookout became a 14’ x 14’ readicut lookout: “…there was a lot of discussion of the ways and means to improve fire discovery, which involved keeping the lookouts comfortable and, by all means, on top of the lookout point… Why not build a 14’ x 14’ house where the lookout would be seeing all the time?” And thus we arrived at the design for the Sliderock Lookout, which was likely packed in using mules and then put together by the lookout himself or Civilian Conservation Corps members. If you want to check out Fickes’ autobiographical account of the USFS, do it here: http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Publications/region/1/fickes/index.aspx
So now we know how the lookout was originally constructed, but how was it moved from its location in Clinton, Montana, at an elevation of 7,820, with limited four-wheel drive vehicle access, to Fort Missoula? Judging by the correspondence at Fort Missoula alone, it was quite a process. Members of the Society of American Foresters headed up a task force in association with the Friends of Fort Missoula to acquire the abandoned lookout—which meant dealing not only with the physical challenges of transporting such a structure, but also convincing the National Register of Historic Places that it was a good move to do so. In a letter to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, sent in August of 1983, Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels explains why transporting Sliderock Lookout to Fort Missoula was the best viable option: “Its use as a permanent exhibit and interpretative structure will ensure long term maintenance. Also, it will be readily accessible to a much greater number of the general public.” Another document points out that the deteriorating lookout at Sliderock Mountain was a potential hazard and even a liability for the Forest Service if left on the mountain, since it was accessible by vehicle and sat atop a 45’ wooden tower.
Ideally, the SAF task force wanted to move the entire structure intact using a heavy-lift helicopter, but that proved impossible when there was no available helicopter. Even if there had been, “The records indicated the total weight of the items packed in was slightly more than the helicopter could lift” anyway (The Montana Champion, Dec. 1983). The next option was to remove the lookout from Sliderock Mountain using a heavy-duty crane and 2-ton trucks for transport, taking one piece at a time. Windows, shutters, and furniture came out first. Then the roof came off on September 17, 1983, followed by the walls, the cabin floor, the catwalk, and the support beams. Of course, following all of that effort on the mountain, the entire lookout had to be reconstructed back at the Fort. It took until July 4, 1985 until the finishing touches were added and it was finally ready for the public!
If you want to learn more about the fascinating world of lookouts and forest fires, check out the FFLA’s Conference in Darby at http://www.firelookout.org/. Anyone curious about lookouts is invited to attend!
And of course, come on by Fort Missoula to check out Sliderock Lookout and the Miller Guard Cabin next door!