Five Things You Didn't Know About Fire Lookouts

Amber Casali, author of "Hiking Washington’s Fire Lookouts," shares five little-known facts about the historic structures that dot Washington State’s ridgelines and mountaintops.
Mountaineers Books Mountaineers Books
May 02, 2018
Five Things You Didn't Know About Fire Lookouts

You may have hiked to a couple fire lookouts already, sweating your way up a steep trail until you reach an historic wooden cabin perched on a mountaintop. But here are a few things you might not know about lookouts as hiking destinations.

1. There is no such thing as a bad view.

By definition, all lookouts were sited where staff could see as much land as possible to spot forest fires. Lookouts are situated at relatively high vantage points (usually least 5,000 feet) on a ridge or peak with a 360-degree view. What’s the flip side of that stellar view? A killer quad workout. But the vistas are always worth the uphill climb.

2. There used to be hundreds in Washington State.

Many of the lookouts in our region were originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. By the mid-century, it’s estimated that Washington had 500-600 lookouts. There are many former lookout sites where the structures have burned down or been removed. Today, approximately 87 lookouts still stand.

3. You might see original phone line insulators on the hike.

Before radios were used, staff reported fires using a hand-crank telephone inside the lookout. The phone line had to run from the mountaintop to the nearest guard station, and was often strung along the trail between trees with ceramic insulators. Keep an eye out for these remnants of yore — either white or brown and shaped like an oblong donut. 

4. They take a beating.

Since most lookouts are on unobstructed mountaintops at high elevation, they are exposed to extreme weather. At many lookouts it’s not uncommon to get high winds and flurries of snow, even in summer. Staff performed basic upkeep during the summer such as fixing shutters, replacing hardware, and touching up paint. Sometimes the buildings faced more devastating issues, like getting damaged in a forest fire or the roof completely blowing off.

5. Some are still staffed.

If living alone in a wood-and-glass cabin on a mountaintop for the summer sounds romantic, fear not — it’s still being done. While the heyday of staffing lookouts is over, there are still a handful where hearty, intrepid folks dutifully scan the landscape for months at a time to help protect forests and homes from blazes.

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FireLookouts_Cover_Final_WEB_SM.jpgHungry for more history? Itching to see a few of these unique structures for yourself? Make sure to pick up a copy of  Hiking Washington’s Fire Lookouts!