Pennsylvania builds 16 new fire lookout towers

fire lookout tower Pennsylvania
The new 40-foot fire lookout tower at Big Pocono State Park in Monroe County, PA is one of 16 that are replacing old towers. Penn. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources photo.

While most land managers are abandoning their fire lookout towers or installing electronic systems to detect wildfires, the state of Pennsylvania is going old school.

From PA Environment Digest Blog:

In September 2017, [Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] began a $4.6 million Department of General Services capital project to replace 16 forest fire lookout towers on state forest land. Many of the original towers still in operation today were constructed in the 1920s through 1940 and needed to be replaced.

The new fire towers are sturdier to meet today’s structural and foundation code requirements. They will be safer to ascend, with improved stairs and railings, and be topped with weather-proof cabs.

Below is an excerpt from an article at National Public Radio:

…This spring marks the first fire season for the 16 new towers built in Pennsylvania last year.

Gary Weber, treasurer of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, was surprised by the project.

“My first reaction was, ‘Really?’” he said. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Over the past few decades, Weber has seen many states end their lookout programs. Pennsylvania is the only state recently to build new towers on such a scale.

“Nationwide, we figure there were somewhere over 9,000 lookout structures built along the way and probably a little over 2,500 actually left standing, but a lot of those are just abandoned,” Weber said.

He estimates 500 are still staffed, as states turn to other methods of fire detection like planes, cameras and citizen reports from cell phones.

“There are a lot of places where if people see smoke, they will get 10 calls to the 9-1-1 center,” said Mike Kern chief of the division of forest fire protection for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the forest districts. “There’s other places in north-central Pennsylvania especially where no one will see a fire for a couple hours.”

Even if someone wanted to report a fire, they’d have a hard time finding cell service in the Pennsylvania Wilds. That’s one of the reasons why five of the new towers are in the Moshannon Forest District.

John Hecker, manager of the Moshannon Forest District, said the alternative is paying upwards of $1,000 per hour for a plane to search for fires.

“Our towers always spot the smoke quicker,” he said. “Just a little tiny column of smoke comes up, and they’re looking at that against the blue of the horizon and they can spot that.”

Most of Pennsylvania’s new lookouts replaced aging ones at the same location. The forest districts staff about two dozen towers statewide on warm, dry, windy days in the spring, as well as in the fall when fires tend to pop up again.

Sequoia National Forest plans to rebuild Needles Lookout destroyed by fire

Needles Lookout Tower
Needles Lookout Tower, July 28, 2011.

The U.S. Forest Service intends to rebuild the iconic Needles Lookout Tower in the Giant Sequoia National Monument located in the Sequoia National Forest. It was destroyed by fire July 28, 2011 when an ember from the wood stove’s chimney in the structure ignited the shake shingle roof. Burning debris raining down as the structure burned caused additional fires below the rocky precipice.

The lookout tower in central California was constructed in 1937-38 by the Civilian Conservation Corps atop the rock formation at 8,245 feet.  Access was along a series of stairways and walkways suspended from the granite or across granite outcrops.

In attempting to get an update on the status of the reconstruction, we contacted the USFS’ Western Divide and Hume Lake Ranger Districts. They referred us to Del Pengilly, President of the Giant Sequoia National Monument Association who is coordinating many of the efforts to rebuild the structure. Mr. Pingilly told us that the GSNMA has raised $30,000 of the $50,000 they will need, and if they meet their goal they hope to begin construction in 2015. Apparently the non-profit 501(c)(3) organization is taking on much of the work themselves, including soliciting the volunteered time of civil engineer Bill Roberts of Porterville, California who is drawing up the plans for the project. The new design will include the use of fire resistant materials.

Other than raising the funds needed, one of the hurdles is getting the plans approved by the U.S. Forest Service so that the volunteers from GSNMA can begin work.

Mr. Pengilly said they will be happy to accept donations from anyone who wants to help raise the last $20,000 they need.

Needles Lookout burningUPDATE November 5, 2014:

Below is a photo of the Visitor Center at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, taken May 14, 2007 — a structure that at that time also had a shake shingle roof. I believe it still has a shake shingle roof.

Shake shingle roof Devils Tower National Memorial
Shake shingle roof on the visitor’s center at Devils Tower National Monument. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (click to enlarge)


Record-setting lookout loses home in Happy Camp Fire Complex

Nancy Hood receives lookout award
Nancy Hood received the Gene McGaugh Memorial 2012 Lookout of the Year Award from Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham. USFS photo.

The person who holds the record for staffing a fire lookout tower for the longest period of time in an unbroken span in one National Forest lost her home in the Happy Camp Fire Complex on Monday. Nancy Hood had to evacuate the Lake Mountain Lookout on the Klamath National Forest a few weeks ago when it was threatened by the fire. As she left, the tower was wrapped in fire shelter material to protect it from the flames. Then Ms. Hood had to evacuate her home at Scott River Road in northwest California when the fire spread in that direction. Her house was destroyed on Monday along with one other residence and two outbuildings.

An effort is underway to help Ms. Hood in time of need. Funds are being collected at where anyone can donate to an account set up for her.

Ms. Hood, 75 years old, is in her 56th year of working as a fire lookout. In 2011 an article in the Mail Tribune said, “Her unbroken span as a fire lookout in one forest is believed to be the longest in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, according to both the agency and the national Forest Fire Lookout Association”.

The remains of Nancy Hood's house. Photo from the GoFundMe site.
The remains of Nancy Hood’s house. Photo from the GoFundMe site.

Below is an excerpt from an announcement the Klamath National Forest published when Ms. Hood received the Gene McGaugh Memorial 2012 Lookout of the Year Award.


“The Klamath National Forest is pleased to announce Nancy Hood as the recipient of the 2012 Gene McGaugh Memorial Lookout of the Year. The recipient of this annual award is selected by lookout and fire prevention personnel from multiple agencies in the Siskiyou County area.

“Nancy is a prime example of someone with a deep passion for serving the American people by caring for the land,” said Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham. “We are proud to have people like Nancy watching over and helping to protect national forest and other lands alike.”

Hood has been working on the Klamath National Forest as a Fire Detection Lookout for 55 years. She began her Forest Service career in the summer of 1959 while still a Mechanical Engineering student at Sacramento City College. After that summer out in what she sees as the steep and rugged paradise of the Klamath, Hood began searching for a life-long career as a Fire Detection Lookout.

Hood has served at Lake Mountain Lookout since 1992, the oldest lookout in the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service. It was originally constructed in 1911/12 and in 1996 was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register. The basement is original to the structure, while the “cab” on top of the structure is “new”, dating back to 1933.

Hood has had an influence in the training of many new lookouts during her lengthy career. “I really try to impress upon them to learn the country – learn your area first, expand out to the districts next to you and just keep up with the looking,” she said. ”

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Don.

Saskatchewan replacing fire lookouts with cameras

Saskatchewan lookout tower
Saskatchewan lookout tower. CTV News

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment is phasing out fire lookout towers staffed with humans to detect fires and replacing them with cameras.

About 38 seasonal positions will be lost when the government switches to camera systems. The provincial government says the installation of the equipment, which should be operational by April of 2014,  will cost $1.5 million.

Environment Minister Ken Cheveldayoff says the switch will save money. However, he maintains the primary issue is safety.

“These towers are 80 to 90 feet high,” Cheveldayoff said Thursday. “There’s a safety issue if they’re single-manned that if something was to happen, if that individual was able to slip or something like that, it could be dire consequences.”

Saskatchewan lookout tower
Saskatchewan lookout tower. Photo by Government of Saskatchewan.

Fire Lookouts not obsolete just yet

“It’s like when you’re home and you see a spider running across the carpet, and you see it because it doesn’t belong,” Arizona fire lookout Helen Roe says. “This is my carpet, these trees. I can see when something’s not right. I know this ridge like the back of my hand.”

The Arizona Republic has a lovely feature online profiling Roe and other fire lookouts in the state. The lookout tower she mans is 14×14 feet and includes a catwalk around the edge. The news feature is a great read.

On a clear day, the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff stretch across the western horizon. To the east, rolling waves of ponderosas reach toward Show Low. On a midsummer day, banks of clouds, not quite afternoon storms, drift across the sky.

The story notes that in theory, technology should render the human lookout obsolete, incorporating remote cameras, GPS units, and satellite feeds.

Ritter Butte Lookout
Ritter Butte Lookout, May 2012, photo © 2012 Kelly Andersson

The Oregon Department of Forestry, however, re-opened a fire lookout near John Day, Oregon, this year — and they staffed it because the area is a lightning hotspot for central/eastern Oregon fires. The ODF is working on implementing a new “remote camera detection system”–  and that’s part of the reason for activating this summer the Ritter Butte Lookout, which has not been staffed for something like 20 years.

[Thanks, Dick Mangan]

Life at Cyclone Peak lookout

Halle Safier at Cyclone Peak Lookout. Photo by Michael Gallacher

The Missoulian has an article about what it is like to staff the Cyclone Peak lookout tower in the Flathead National Forest in northern Montana. Here is an excerpt:

Cyclone Peak is aptly named.

On this bald, unprotected mountaintop four miles south of Polebridge, the wind whips and churns from all directions.

When it does, the peak’s high-rise fire lookout sways.

“When it’s really windy, I don’t go out on the catwalk,” explained Halle Safier, who is working this summer as a fire watcher for the first time. “You get used to it, and really, it’s kind of exciting when it really blows because it gets really loud in the lookout, the wind whistles in my stovepipe and the place comes alive.”

Safier’s summer home and office in the Cyclone Peak lookout tower is perhaps the most breathtaking place in the world to live and work.

Supported by a giant wood scaffolding, this postage-stamp-sized lookout some 50 feet above the ground takes 65 steps of ladder-like climbing to reach and offers what is truly a bird’s-eye view of Montana’s greatest treasure.

Safier sees it all from her unique vantage 6,000 feet above sea level as she conducts her primary lookout duties: collecting weather data, tracking lightning storms, and scanning the endless slopes and horizons for smoke and fire.

“I never get tired of looking at it,” Safier said. “I feel so fortunate to be able to live up here in this comfy little house in the sky.”

The wind, a visit from an occasional eagle, and daily radio conversations with Kalispell Dispatch and five other fire lookouts stationed nearby in the park, keep Safier company during her mostly solitary 10-day shifts.

A 12-volt radio, tuned to National Public Radio, allows her to keep pace with news of the world beyond the glass hut and its covered catwalk.

To fill the days when the fire danger is low, Safier attends to a long list of maintenance projects.

This season’s priority is digging post holes and building a tie rail for the mule teams that help bring in supplies at the start of the summer and when it is time to board up the lookout for the winter.

The place is in need of a fresh coat of paint, and so Safier is tackling that project as well.

In this relatively wet summer, there have been few fires to report.

“When we are busy with fire, we are really busy,” Safier said. “You are always on the radio, the cell phone is ringing, and you are always updating the coordinates. It can get a little wild.”

The U.S. Geological Survey on their web site has a virtual 360-degree tour of the view from Cyclone Peak Lookout. The photos were taken with infrared film in 1935.

Thanks Dick