Our thanks to Maestro photographer Bill Edwards for his collaboration on writing this blog post.
This gallery is a reverential visit to a handful of the remaining fire lookouts in Washington State. For me, there is something completely magical about visiting a historic fire lookout. Although some are not too difficult to hike to, most require driving up terrible forest roads and hiking arduous miles up, up and up to reach their summit perches. The effort, however, is worth it because the destinations deliver stunning views that will take your breath away. And being there is a reminder of a more romantic past that represents an era before modern technology when solitary human beings dutifully scanned for signs of developing wildfires from austere glass walled cabins perched on rocky mountain summits throughout the northwest.
“It was a great life. You woke up to the greatest views of all. You breathed the freshest air in the world. You ate and did the chores when the spirit moved you. You had the whole mountain to call your own. And the government even paid you to be there! That’s how it was back in the 1930s when forestry agencies were working frantically to put a firewatcher on every mountaintop. Eight thousand men and women in the U.S. would spend each summer as an official government lookout during the three decades that followed.”
Ray Kresek, Heavens Gate Lookout, Idaho
In the early 1900s private fire watchers began to oversee the expansive white pine forests of Idaho. The arrival of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and subsequent historic wildfires launched the building and staffing government lookouts to protect America’s half billion acres of national forests.
Early lookouts were non-standard, freelanced affairs that ranged from small tents to spacious log cabins. By 1915 the U.S. Forest Service had established standards for cabin construction with a 12’ x 12’ D-6 ‘cupola design’ with a glassed-in second story observatory. Nearly 200 were constructed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. By 1929 lookout designs had evolved to the L-4 model, a 14’ x 14’ frame cabin with gable shingle or hip roof and heavy shutters which were opened above the perimeter windows to provide shade in the summer. The original L-4 cost $500 from Spokane, WA or Portland, OR. This cabin was produced in kits for hauling by mule trains to their rugged mountain sites where they could be assembled on rock or cinder block foundations or timber towers. Other versions followed but the L-4 was the most ubiquitous with over 1,000 put into service. If you hike to many historic fire lookouts chances are high that you’ll visit an L-4.ç
“At the zenith of the lookout era there were more than 8,000 across America. Montana had 639. In Washington there were 656. Oregon had 849. Only in Idaho there were more, with a whopping 989 plus a hundred more “patrol” points visited each day! Only a few hundred are still manned, a few dozen by volunteers. The government rents some to would-be fire watchers to man a summit for a day or week. Others are even being restored by individuals at their own expense under special agreement with various agencies. Some of the cabins have become national historic monuments. Hundreds have survived only in tattered old photographs.”
Ray Kresek, Historic Lookout Project, Spokane, WA
According to recent records, only 92 of the 656 lookouts in Washington survive today, and there will likely be fewer in the future. Fire lookout hikes are among my favorites and I plan to visit as many as I can and add to this gallery as weather and time permit. I hope you enjoy these panoramas. Click here to check the “Fire Lookouts in Washington State” set.
Text and panoramas by Bill Edwards.