Returning to First Butte

Okanogan County is home to the highest number of remaining fire lookouts in the state, eight of which are right here in the Methow Valley Ranger District: Monument 83, Slate Peak, Mebee Pass, Goat Peak, First Butte, North Twentymile, Lookout, and Leecher. These lookouts are fantastic pieces of history but many are in rough condition after nearly 100 years of weathering nature as well as abuse and vandalism.

I’ve been partnering with Michael Liu, the retired former District Ranger here in the Methow Valley, to aid in outreach and restoration efforts for the Methow’s lookouts. Mike is not only a fantastic person but he’s also an incredible wilderness steward with a real love for fire lookouts. Mike introduced me to Matt Ellis, the Methow Valley District Fire Management Officer, and we’ve been working together to inventory the lookouts and hopefully get them some much needed love. 

It takes a lot of time to get traction for projects like this, especially with an understaffed and underfunded Forest Service, but we’re seeing momentum and in fact, both lookouts at North Twentymile will be receiving maintenance and attention this summer. I’m super excited to be a part of it! 

Last week I picked up the key to First Butte from the Forest Service office and yesterday I headed up there to meet Mike and two of his friends from the National Forest Foundation to inventory the condition of the lookout. It’s our hope that we can convince someone to step forward with the funding needed to restore it.

First built in 1938, First Butte was heavily and regularly used in the Methow every fire season until 1997. Since then it continues to be used part time and for emergency use. Ray Kresek recently told me that the ground house at First Butte was originally a garage/woodshed. In 1942 when many fire lookouts were being used as part of the US Army Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) during World War II, this building was converted to sleeping quarters for enemy aircraft spotters. Two people were assigned to each station on 12 hour shifts. Very few cabins like the one at First Butte still exist and only two others still stand in Washington: Red Mountain in the Gifford Pinchot and Big Hill in the Okanogan-Wenatchee.

Currently, there is still too much snow on the road to access First Butte by vehicle, but it’s possible to park about 2 miles below the lookout and hike up. I headed out yesterday morning ahead of Mike and company, joking to them that I’d open the lookout and have it tidy with fresh coffee waiting. In fact, I hauled up my big backpack full of stuff, hoping that I’d be able to take advantage of the opportunity to spend the night and perhaps do some lookout cleanup. 

In case you’re wondering about conditions, there is still plenty of snow above 5,000′, especially on northerly aspects. While most of the road was pretty easy travel, I hit deep snow around 5,100′ up to 8-10″ in places. Although I brought snowshoes they weren’t much help in the soft snow and I spent the last two hundred feet or so doing a snowshoe postholing slog fest. 

I excitedly arrived at First Butte, only to feel immediately sad. The once photogenic little ground house was in rough condition. I couldn’t believe how much it had decayed from my last visit in October 2017. The beautiful windows were gone, boarded up with plywood, and the roof was starting to fail.

I hoped that the fire lookout had weathered the last few years better than the ground house. I climbed the stairs to unlock the padlock, eager to get settled in, and quickly realized there was no padlock. Instead, a large wood plank had been screwed across the trap door into the catwalk. I had no screwdriver. Doh.

Last fall I did some shutter repair work with a friend at North Twentymile and we hiked up expecting to be able to access the toolbox on site. Nope. We had to improvise some tools out of rocks and a tiny leatherman. After both of these experiences you’d think I’d learn to carry tools on every visit to a lookout. Ok, my lesson is now learned!

I tried to call Mike but knew he was likely already on his way up and out of cell range and sure enough I got no answer. I remembered that I had tools in my truck. It was only 2 miles or so back down the road and I had already broken trail through the snow, so I stowed my stuff and headed back down. 

I ran into Mike halfway and explained the situation, hoping perhaps he had tools but he and crew only had a small pocket screwdriver. I headed the rest of the way down to get the screwdriver from my truck while Mike and his friends continued up to take a look at things. I sure didn’t think I’d be doing laps at First Butte yesterday but indeed, I got my workout! At least with multiple tracks through the snow, the trek back up was much easier. 

With screwdriver in hand and a little elbow grease we managed to get the trapdoor open. It took the efforts of all three of us to unlocked the chain securing the shutters and door. It was a huge chain! Then as we went to raise the shutters, we realized that Mike was the only person tall enough to reach the outriggers to secure them. The outrigger had fallen from the north side of the lookout, so we couldn’t fasten those shutters open.

I realized there was no way I’d be able to spend the night. Most of the shutters were inoperable and even if they were I wouldn’t be able to reach high enough on my own to close them. Rewrapping the heavy chain around the lookout would also be a tough feat to pull off solo and the lookout was devoid of furniture other than a small stove and pedestal.

But hey, no way can I complain about spending a few hours at First Butte! It was a stunningly beautiful day and the benefit of me hauling up a bunch of stuff is that not only did I get some backpacking conditioning for the season, but we enjoyed some fresh ground local coffee and cinnamon twisps at the summit.

The good news is that the lookout itself is in fairly decent condition. The windows and shutters are all intact, though some of the shutter outriggers need to be replaced and the floor needs some work. It was good to check on the lookout and bring up some folks who might be the first step towards getting First Butte and its ground house restored.

As I always say in my lookout articles, please treat these structures with care and respect. They are already so tough to maintain and many spend countless volunteer hours trying to do so. I would love to see the history of these fantastic structures live on for many years to come! 

Some more photos of the spectacular views from First Butte.