If you’ve ever been hiking through the backcountry and you stumble upon a towering structure atop a summit or ridgeline, you’ve likely found yourself a fire tower. These uniquely designed structures were once commonplace along ridgelines throughout our country... each with its own territory to watch and story to tell.
Fire towers tend to be synonymous with the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, but in actuality, they existed long before it. For years, pillars and perches could be found scattered throughout small towns and densely wooded areas, often built and used by lumber companies and local municipalities. Nonetheless, the Forest Service would ultimately give the structures the historic purpose they’re remembered for today... thanks greatly in part to one unprecedented fire.
The Great Fire of 1910 remains one of the most catastrophic blazes in American history. Three million acres gone in only two days as flames ravaged forest land through the American northwest, even stretching into southern British Columbia. The hurricane-force winds that fanned the flames carried its smoke clear across the country. It was an impossible fight from the start. Entire towns were wiped clear off the map. 87 people lost their lives in what came to be known as “The Big Burn”, most of whom were firefighters.
Considering the U.S. Forest Service was still in its infancy, they suddenly found themselves tasked with establishing strategies to prevent a blaze from ever causing such devastation again. Within a year of The Big Burn, permanent towers began appearing on mountaintops across the country, complete with cabins for the lookouts and caretakers who would inhabit them. Years later, as the country found itself in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps expanded the effort with more towers and access roads to provide greater coverage throughout densely forested regions.
While the CCC’s structures were effective in identifying fires from their elevated vantage points, they soon would keep watch for a far different type of threat... enemy aircraft. When the U.S. entered World War II in the early 1940’s, the Aircraft Warning Service was established and quickly commissioned the newly constructed fire towers to carry out their mission. This was most common in the western states where defenses were up against potential attacks from the Pacific Theater. All the while, the towers were operated by the lookouts who were tasked to keep their eyes on the horizon.
The duty of a fire lookout was as much isolating as it was cooperative. Each was
responsible for the often uninhabited territory surrounding their tower, providing fire and weather data gained from their elevated perspective. Communication centers would then compare that information with what was provided by neighboring lookouts for vital emergency decision making. Lookouts were on the front line of identifying danger and minimizing damage, lives dedicated to protecting the wooded wilderness.
Around the 1960’s, fire towers came to be seen as antiquated, outpaced by newer technology that was being developed and introduced. Aircraft became a primary tool for fire detection, which allowed for not only broader and more affordable coverage, but also earlier and more accurate detection.However, not all advancements proved to be fruitful endeavors. By the 1990’s, technology reliant on satellites and cell phones appeared to offer sustainable fire detection solutions for the future. These soon proved to be ineffective in many regions, considering a blaze identifiable from space has already become too large for early control. Poor cell signal in rural mountainous regions hindered effectiveness as well. As a result, in certainly areas of our country’s mountains, tried and true fire towers and their reliable lookouts continue to stand guard to this day.
Summits and ridgelines are still dotted with these aging structures from the Rockies to the Appalachians, each with its own unique story to tell. Some remain active in areas where the most effective and efficient fire detection tool is still the naked eye. Many of those that were decommissioned have fallen into disrepair. The remaining towers from the early 20th century serve as historical relics, often sought after by hikers and admirers. All the same, each one served a unifying purpose: to preserve and protect the surrounding lands we still enjoy today.
The next time you come across a fire tower... take a moment to consider the significant role it played, the lookouts who occupied it, and the legacy it represents.