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 GoFundMe.com 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.

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“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

Volunteers staff lookout towers

In the 1980’s there were about a half-dozen staffed fire lookout towers in or around the Cleveland National Forest in southern California. Now there are only two, and one of them is staffed by volunteers. The Press-Enterprise has an interesting article about the restoration and operation of some of these towers. Below is an excerpt, but read the whole article HERE.

Fire lookout volunteers Michelle Brandhuber and Curt Waite check weather conditions during a training session at the High Point Lookout tower on Palomar Mountain. Press-Enterprise photo

With a spanking-new visitors book full of fresh, blank pages, the High Point Lookout fire tower in the Cleveland National Forest is beginning a new chapter in its nearly 75-year history.

After a painstaking restoration, the lookout is about to join nine other towers in area forests from which volunteers watch for smoke.

With the 2009 fire season ramping up, High Point just became the second staffed lookout in the Cleveland National Forest when volunteer fire-spotters began regular shifts in June.

The comeback of the High Point Lookout, which had sat vacant since 1992, is part of a larger resurgence of interest in saving and staffing historic fire lookouts.

More than 8,000 lookout towers once dotted the country.

A sort of early-warning system for remote areas, many were built in the 1930s for the U.S. Forest Service on mountains or other elevated spots where people could search for signs of fires.

Up in their perches and armed with binoculars, trained spotters can see a blaze as small as a campfire.

But budget cuts and technological advances led the U.S. government to abandon the lookouts in the 1970s.

While not all the technology has lived up to expectations, experts say, people who peer from the lookouts searching for smoke remain reliable.

Also, a series of major fires has led officials in California to seek every available means of stopping them.

“We’ve had some horrendous fires” in the region, said Pam Morey, a Southern California director for the national nonprofit Forest Fire Lookout Association. “I think it’s gone in a circle and we’re back to the (place) where we’re needed again.”

Life at a lookout tower

The Helena Independent Record has an interesting story about life at an isolated lookout tower accessible only by hiking trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. When you go to the site, in addition to the article, it opens a video filmed at the tower. Here is an excerpt from the well-written article.

“When I first started up here, the drifts would last until the 15th or 20th of July,” she said, pointing to Sugarloaf Mountain, a dinosaur-looking peak cleaving the near horizon. “Last year, there was no snow at all up here by the Fourth of July. But this year, when I opened the lookout on July 3, it was the most snow I’d ever seen – more snow than when I’d come up here in June.”

The snow was so deep that when Chapman opened the lookout in early July, she had to dig a path for the pack train to get supplies to the summit. She dug four feet down and eight feet wide to make room for horses and mules.

Early this morning the mules returned, led by Tim Love with Mills Wilderness Adventures. We passed his pack train 2,000 feet up the trail as it headed down the mountain. The team was returning from a supply run, stocking Chapman’s lookout with enough food, water and wood to last 14 days.

Chapman stacked the wood below the porch. She placed the yams, avocados and bananas on the tables. The canned goods she stacked in the cabinet and the baking supplies – the shortening, flour, corn meal and salt – she placed on the shelf.