One of the things I love most about fire lookouts is how they’re often central figures in the life and stories of many. Have you ever visited a fire lookout and not been captivated by them? I’m an advocate of keeping these structures maintained, not just because they’re a tremendous piece of American history, but also because they have an ability to inspire community.
I’ve visited Lookout Mountain near Twisp many times over the years. In fact, it was during one of my first visits to both Buck and Lookout Mountain during the winter of 2014 that I first thought about trying to visit all of Washington’s fire lookouts, a goal that I would eventually accomplish in 2019.
The existing L-4 tower on Lookout Mountain was built in 1937 and staffed every season until 1997. Since then it has remained “on call” during times of high fire danger. Every time I visited Lookout Mountain it was hard not to notice its weathering. The structure had been improved over the last few years thanks to locals who volunteered time to fix up shutters and other structural issues, but poor Lookout had been in dire need of paint for years. Last year, I began partnering with the Methow Valley Ranger District and retired District Ranger Mike Liu to talk about organizing efforts to maintain our lookouts. Our plan was to do work on the North Twentymile site but unfortunately the week prior to our work party, the Cub Creek 2 fire started and quickly blocked all access to the site.
By late August, after coming down from staffing Goat Peak in July due to fires, I thought about Lookout Mountain. Could we use this time as an opportunity to get it painted? Obviously, our District was stretched thin with fires, but they were completely supportive of the effort. Mike Liu and I hiked up to Lookout in early August to inventory the condition of the lookout and remove what few paint chips remained on the structure so we could do some paint matching.
The Forest Fire Lookout Association stepped forward with a $500 grant from the Chuck Butler Memorial Fund to cover the costs of paint and supplies. In August I went on an Ace Hardware shopping spree, mixing up eight gallons of paint for Lookout, matched against what was left of the existing paint, and purchasing some other painting and repair supplies.
Crowdsourcing a mule train.
Mike and I set aside a week in late August to start painting Lookout Mountain. At least we wouldn’t have to do much scraping since there wasn’t much left of the paint! The biggest challenge? We’d have to get all eight gallons of paint to the summit along with several gallons of water, a ladder, and various painting supplies. I remembered that the Friends of Three Fingers had success placing supplies at the trailhead to Three Fingers with signs asking visitors to “hike up materials for lookout maintenance”. Everything made it to the summit.
I borrowed their idea and hoped that I’d have similar success. On August 27th I took a truck load of supplies to the Lookout Mountain trailhead and posted a sign saying “Please hike me to the lookout”. I shared online and with everyone I knew. Then I held my breath. Would eight gallons of paint, six gallons of water, and other painting supplies actually make it to the summit?
Mike and I were prepared to be pack mules but we sure hoped we’d have some help. The next morning on the first day of our work party, I arrived at the trailhead at 8am and was shocked to see two gallons of paint along with most of the paint brushes and painting supplies gone. Had someone already hiked them up?
As I was packing supplies to head up, I heard voices coming down the trail. The couple excitedly waived and said they had in fact hiked up the two gallons of paint and supplies that very morning! They laughed, saying they thought it would be easy. They showed me how they hung a gallon of paint on either end of a long stick and carried it over their back for about 500′ until they realized it was going to be some serious effort to make it the whole mile and a half to the summit. Ha!
We chatted for several minutes and I thanked them profusely, then met up with Mike, and together we hiked up more water and more supplies. That morning as we prepared Lookout for painting, I was shocked that visitor after visitor to the summit was bringing up gallons of paint and supplies, asking if there were more. In barely two hours everything had made it to the summit!
Old, thirsty boards with history.
That first day, Mike and I slathered the first coats of paint onto Lookout’s old thirsty boards, realizing that eight gallons was going to go very fast. Two of my amazing neighbors came up and spent several hours helping us paint. Already I was so impressed and happy with everyone’s interest and willingness to help.
My reward for helping organize the painting party was getting to stay at Lookout for the week and it sure didn’t disappoint! It was fun to open two of Lookout’s shutters that day and see the beautiful old L-4 tower slowly coming to life again. I enjoyed looking through historical logs and artifacts and thinking of all the lookouts who had spent their days and nights here. An old historical map had fire tallies from a previous lookout.
My friend and nearby fire lookout Lightning Bill told me that when all of the Methow Valley lookouts were in operation it was serious competition who could spot the most fires. Lookout Mountain was the winner. Every fire season the lookout averaged over a dozen first reports of fires, giving it the distinction of being the lookout with the highest number of first fire reports in the Methow Valley.
Meditative painting and an army of volunteers.
The following day I started painting early and little did I know I’d enjoy an almost completely solo day. While I had hoped to have some painting volunteers, I have to say, it was incredibly meditative and peaceful to be up there by myself. It’s not everyday you get to paint in such a beautiful place! A few summit visitors later in the day were very excited to see the transformation and the Twisp Chamber of Commerce even stopped by to take some beautiful aerial photographs.
Mike returned the third day to lend a hand again, hiking a ladder all the way to the summit. Thanks to more social media posts, we ended up with an army of painting volunteers! Some were new to the Valley, eager to help out in the community. Others were long-time locals, excited to share memories and stories of Lookout Mountain. The rest were casual day hikers, excited to grab a paint brush and spend an extra hour on the mountain helping out. It was pretty wonderful meeting everyone, sharing stories, and talking about fire lookout history. We were even treated to an exciting flyby by a Skycrane fighting the local fires.
We had so many painting volunteers on the third day that Mike was able to do more structural repairs, including some much needed bracing for some weak and damaged shutters. That evening all four shutters on Lookout Mountain were once again open, a not so common sight these days.
Wind and memories.
I was glad that Mike was able to work on shutter repairs that day because I was blasted with winds in excess of 25mph that evening. I got little sleep as shutters banged and the lookout creaked and moaned. At one point I walked outside on the catwalk and could barely close the front door again the wind was so strong! It was pretty exhilarating being in a taller tower and feeling the wind rushing beneath the floor. I eventually awoke the next morning and was relieved to find the shutters still intact. Since I had no early morning visitors, I also caught a much needed peaceful nap.
I went back to painting in the late morning and my first visitor of the day arrived that afternoon. He said he didn’t have long, but asked if he could grab a paintbrush and apply a few brushes of fresh paint. As I handed him supplies, he told me that he often hiked to Lookout Mountain to put things in perspective. He had worked for Aero Methow for some years and was the paramedic who transported injured firefighter Daniel Lyon from the scene of the 2015 Twisp River fire. I couldn’t help but stop for a moment as he talked. Then we both painted for a bit in poignant contemplation.
I received a few more visitors that afternoon, a family from out of town. They told me that their grandfather, Walter Rumsey, was one of the three survivors of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire. They said they knew their grandfather had served as a fire lookout in western Montana but had no idea which ones he had staffed. They only had photos. I suggested they post the photos to an online fire lookout enthusiasts group and that I imagined someone would be able to identify it. Amazingly, I saw their post and indeed, they got the answers they were looking for.
What a remarkable, memorable day. And one that yet again reminded me of all the stories and all the history these historical structures hold.
A beautiful week complete.
On our final day of work, Mike again came up to Lookout to help finish the last remaining outrigger, which are very tedious pieces to paint! We used every last drop of the eight gallons of paint. After six days of hard work, a lot of stories swapped, laughs shared and maybe even a few emotional tears, Lookout Mountain was given a breath of fresh life.
As we closed the shutters and admired the beautiful work that was done by an amazing crew of volunteers, I thought again about the history of these structures and the visitors who shared their stories. It’s impossible to visit a fire lookout and not feel a sense of awe, wonder, and humility. From their perch it’s easy to gain a humbling perspective of life and the nature that surrounds us. I thought about all the people who have served as lookouts and those who have lived and died fighting fires. It reminded me why keeping these structures alive is so important. There are no dull days at a fire lookout, that much is for sure.
“It’ll change your life” a visitor told me that week while at Lookout. Indeed.
I am so very grateful for the support of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the Methow Valley Ranger District, our Forest Service Archaeologist, retired District Ranger Mike Liu, and the Forest Fire Lookout Association. Thank you David Blum, Bri Sullivan, Kellie Roberts, Jess Halloran, Anton, Martin Wild, Laurie and Mark Starihg, Kristina Cool, and all the other volunteers whose names I didn’t capture who came up to help. Thank you for hauling supplies to the lookout, grabbing paint brushes, telling your stories, and helping to transform and care for this beautiful historic structure.