Much to the dismay of many Idahoans, 61.7 percent of Idaho’s land is under federal control. In some areas, forests drape the shoulders of magnificent mountain ranges for as far as the eye can see. Wildfire is an ages old threat to these forests and an even greater threat to the economic interests nestled within; for example, timber harvests, private ranches, and pockets of private summer homes nestled into the vast tracts of government holdings.
The infamous fire of 1910, which burned over three million acres (4,688 square miles) of private and federal land and killed 85 people, initiated the construction of a network of fire lookout towers built on strategically located peaks across America. During the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s army of CCCs greatly expanded the reach and connectivity of the lookout towers, building quaint but sturdy wooden huts with 50-60 square feet of living space, enclosed by four glass walls. Sometimes the huts were built directly onto a slab of granite atop a peak, other times, they were further elevated by steel lattice rising up to 100 feet off the ground.
The original intention was to staff enough lookouts to create a network of vigilant eyes spanning the far reaches of the wilderness. Each tower gives visual access to an approximate 20 mile range. Many of these isolated outposts can be reached only on foot or by pack train, thanks to a combination of hair-raising terrain and, in some cases, wilderness regulations which prohibit the use of motorized vehicles. Traditionally the men and women who staffed these outposts spent long summer months with little company other than winged or four-footed native forest dwellers. Communication was limited to finicky radio lines. Supplies were lugged in by mule and later by helicopter. Now, remarkably, wi-fi expands communication dramatically. I was astonished and a bit embarrassed to hear my phone come to life at eight thousand feet!
At their peak, there were over 8,000 fire lookouts scattered about the contiguous 48 states. Now only eight or nine hundred of the roughly ,2500 still-standing lookouts are staffed. Infrared, radio-operated and satellite cameras and airplane spotting are quickly replacing human vigilance in modern fire detection.
On a recent four-day trip across central Idaho my friends and I visited four lookouts. We were able to drive to one manned tower; the other three required a brief but steep hike to boarded up facilities with breath-taking views of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area and the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area. I stayed an extra day and made it five for five.
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
by Gary Snyder