Fire lookout lodges offer history, views and uncommon shelter

  • Article by: JIM UMHOEFER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 12:18 PM

Fire lookout towers in the backcountry provide not only soaring views of wild lands, but also cheap, unique shelter.

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While enjoying the evening campfire at the base of Yaak Mountain Lookout in northwestern Montana, Phil and I were complaining about three days of sunny weather. That’s when the rumble of thunder silenced us.

Overhead, the broad, blue sky was dappled with fleecy clouds. But weather changes swiftly in the mountains, and the 45-foot-tall lookout tower we had rented was in the path of a fast-moving lightning storm.

We smothered the fire, tossed our chairs in the truck and scrambled up the four flights of 56 steps to the security of the glass-enclosed, electrically grounded cabin.

The storm clouds, black and ominous, scraped over the Cabinet Mountains to the southwest, racing toward our snug home. We pulled up chairs to watch the show.

Our fireside complaints were because we bemoaned the sweep of sunbathed mountains stretching to the horizon in all directions, but that we wanted the thrill of weathering the elements when the wind howls and the day turns moody while we’re safe inside.

Luck and lightning were on our side.

U.S. Forest Service lookouts are usually 15-foot by 15-foot cabins circled by a catwalk and wrapped with windows. Most were built in the 1930s to house firewatchers. At the height of their use in the 1940s, the Forest Service operated more than 3,000 lookouts in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. Before the relative luxury of these cabins in the sky, firewatchers often lived in platform tents and climbed tall trees to watch for fires atop “crow’s nest” platforms.

Today, computerized lightning detection systems and air patrols have taken over much of the role of lookouts in detecting and locating wildfires. In severe fire seasons, some fire lookouts are still staffed because they offer views not covered by other systems. But for the most part, lookouts are a dying breed.

The Recreation Cabin and Lookout Rental Program has brought new purpose to these iconic symbols of the backcountry. The Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, Mont., administers the lookout rental program in the national forests of Montana and northern Idaho, where more than 30 lookouts reach above the trees, more than in any other part of the country.

As Phil and I hunkered inside Yaak Mountain Lookout, the wind blew free and cold. Lightning strikes punctuated the brooding southwestern sky; foreboding thunder followed. We knew from past experience that storm tracks can be fickle, yet we morbidly hoped for a close call.

Every five seconds between a lightning strike and thunder clap represents one mile. A 30-second gap means that the thunderstorm is within a dangerous radius. We counted a 40-second gap once we scampered up to the lookout cabin.

Good timing. Safe inside, we watched the storm through the sturdy windows. First, the gale howled and the driving rain flew sideways. The tight windows with heavy frames and small panes never moaned. The lookout shuddered, but barely flinched. Like other lookouts, all built on exposed peaks, it was made to withstand strong wind and direct lightning blows. Lightning rods and grounding cables anchored into the mountain protect it — and whomever happens to be inside.

The lightning kept spearing closer — we counted 15 seconds, then 10, then 5. “We’re going to get hit, Phil!” I yelled as we sat back to back.

Then, in a great white flash and roar, lightning struck. One big strike forked just in front of my southwestern window while Phil saw another strike just off the northeastern corner. Thunder pounded our ears in the same moment.

“Did you see that?!” we exclaimed to each other at the same time.

The storm churned past us, still pelting the lookout with horizontal rain. Now the lightning strikes blazed from cloud to cloud as well as pummeling the forest slopes to our east with elongated ground strikes. We were speechless in the midst of nature’s raw force.

The show was intense, but short-lived. While it still spit and blew overhead, we caught glimpses of clear sky to the west. Soon the evening sun warmed our refuge. On the east catwalk, rainbows arched over the Purcell Mountains, now in the path of the storm.

Changing views from on high

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