Firetowers Through Time

THE RALLYING CRY OF MODERNIST architecture, that form should follow function, receives perhaps its greatest expression not in the works of twentieth century architects, but in the trial and error methods used to develop utilitarian buildings. Fire lookouts, built in remote high altitude locations and designed to withstand extreme winds, blizzards and earthquakes, are some of the most improbable utilitarian structures. These remote mountaintop buildings, some complete wood frame houses hoisted atop spindly towers, others little more than a seat on top of an improbably high tree, have all been defined by the landscape they rest upon and the purpose they serve.

The earliest fire lookouts of the late nineteenth century consisted of little more than a tent and a tree, which the lookout would scale several times a day. Eventually, crow's nests were nailed to the top of these trees, and by the 1920s the federal government began a massive building campaign, establishing a network of more substantial structures across the hilltops of America. Since the 60s, aerial surveillance, video equipment and infrared sensing devices, as well as a "let it burn" policy has drastically reduced the number of lookouts.

The romance of living atop a lonely mountain, and the enforced solitude and contemplation of the job, has inspired a number of writers to work as fire lookouts. The season after Gary Snyder's stay in a fire lookout shack on Sourdough Mountain in the Cascades, Jack Kerouac took up residence in a tower across the lake on Desolation Peak in the summer of 1956. Kerouac's Dharma Bums, inspired by Snyder's Buddhism and mountaineering life, ends with the protagonist (Kerouac) falling to his knees on the floor of the lookout shack in a prayer of thanks for the beauty of nature that surrounds him.

Fire Lookout: Life Atop a Unique Aerial Structure
Sara Irving participated in the Center's Wendover Residence Program in the Spring of 1999.

I HAVE SPENT SIXTEEN SUMMERS as a fire lookout on Mogollon Baldy Lookout in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico. At 10,770 feet the mountain is the highest and the most remote of the ten fire lookout stations within the national forest. The lookout lies in the middle of the half million-acre Gila Wilderness and the shortest trail access is twelve miles along the crest of the Mogollon Mountains. Winters vary due to the southern latitude, but harsh winters force an approach through the deeply incised canyons on the south side, a rough seventeen-mile trip with a five thousand-foot elevation gain.

1254 The Mogollon Baldy Lookout in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico. Photo by Sara Irving
Fire lookout towers were built and staffed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, their growth progressing from east to west, like that of the country. The desire to protect private property from forest fires created fire suppression policies that naturally included fire detection. Lookouts reached their peak in the 1950's and have been declining in number ever since. Many lookout towers are no longer staffed, particularly in more heavily populated areas on the east and west coasts where timbering and development have diminished their need. Some have become recreation sites. Many have been dismantled.

The job of a fire lookout is one that has been heavily romanticized. People envision a lone, rugged individual who braves the elements in a beautiful and wild place. It is true that my days on the mountain are often filled with sunsets, silence, rivers of aspen in the wind, the calls of elk at dusk. But here are also different truths, rarely spoken of. I am enveloped in a sublime view, yet my job involves a particularly distanced kind of looking - a separation, a zooming in with binoculars which creates fragments of a whole. I also map the land, plotting fires to the specifics of their legal description, reducing the landscape to coordinates of latitude and longitude. The weather can be both inspiring and miserable, with winds up to sixty miles an hour, hail and snow. There are long periods of solitude, but hikers, horse packers, and Boy Scout troops visit. The silence is broken during fire season by the sounds of helicopters and slurry planes, and the firefighting tactical maneuvers are a constant static over the radio. At night I trace the satellites, the stars, small town lights, the distant strip mine a harsh yellow glow in desert blackness. Like most places, the tower is a site full of dichotomies.

1255 Fire in the Gila National Forest. Photo by Sara Irving
Mogollon Baldy Peak has been used for fire detection since 1913, when the lookout rode up daily from the spring at Snow Park, two miles to the south, and used a protractor placed on a stump to site fires. The traditional log cabin was built in 1923, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The wooden tower, built in 1917, was replaced by the current thirty-foot steel structure in 1948. It has a wooden cabin on top, and is surrounded by a steel and wood catwalk for viewing.

1256 A "firefinder" similar to an engineer's transit, used to determine the vertical bearing and azimuth of a fire. Photo by Sara IrvingWhile there are amenities, which include a propane cookstove and refrigerator as well as a wood stove, life remains primitive on the mountain and all supplies are packed in by mule. Water is collected from gutters along the cabin roof, stored in a cistern, and hauled by buckets. There is no electricity. The Forest Service radios used for communication are run by batteries, and lighting is by kerosene lamps and candles. The tower has a lightning rod and is grounded by copper wire, providing safety for the lookout, though a direct lightning strike is still a literally hair-raising experience.

The Gila National Forest has a short but intense fire season that runs from late April until the rainy season arrives sometime in July. High winds and temperatures in May and June contribute to the fire danger. There is dry lightning as the monsoon season approaches. The tower has been threatened several times by wildfires. In 1996 a fire started on a ridge to the southwest of the mountain when fire conditions were so extreme that the forest was closed to public use. Drought conditions and the prevailing southwest winds combined to burn 15,000 acres, eventually coming to within twenty feet of the cabin. The spruce and fir forest on the north face of the mountain was burned, but wildflowers and aspen saplings are returning, part of the larger natural cycle of fire in the wilderness.

1257 A map of the Gila National Forest. Photo by Sara Irving
None of us will be here when the next generation of climax forest returns to Mogollon Baldy. No doubt air surveillance and other technological innovations will eventually replace the fire lookout station as we know it. I suspect that the mountain will someday revert to its former wilderness, much like the regeneration of the fire-scarred forest. I have visited several lookout sites in the Gila where the towers have been dismantled. Sites that are not regularly used and maintained can become dangerous to the public, and the Gila Wilderness Act of 1964 specified removal of all unused structures within the wilderness boundary. There are remains - concrete foundations, bedsprings and pieces of wood stoves half-buried, various unidentifiable artifacts. As a culture we are not good at endings. We have a need to leave traces, some proof of our existence. Ruins are one way that we honor our dialog with the landscape, in all its rich and bewildering complexity.