Through the Eyes of a Fire Lookout

Imagine waking up to a vast Northern California landscape; Sprawling forests and high-elevation shrubbery are dwarfed by the mighty white-tipped Mount Shasta in the distance. Now, imagine if it were your job to wake up to this view daily.

For Bob Clark, an experienced US Forest Service fire lookout, scanning the expansive view from his one-room lookout tower means more than simply taking in its beauty. As the tower’s sole resident, Clark is the first line of defense for fighting wildfires in this portion of the Klamath National Forest. His primary focus throughout the day, and sometimes into the night, is to scan this 360-degree view of the landscape for hints of fire.

In 2019, I visited the Herd’s Peak tower and spoke with Clark about his life as a fire lookout.

A Brief History of Fire Lookouts in the U.S.

Before the devastating fires of 1910, which consumed 3 million acres of land across multiple states and killed nearly 100 people, few coordinated fire-fighting systems existed. This major wildfire prompted the government to quickly erect a network of fire lookouts throughout the entire country. By the 1930s, over 5,000 fire lookout towers had been constructed across the U.S. These many towers allowed firefighters to triangulate a fire’s location and respond to fires quickly.

Over time, technology such as radio and telephones eventually made it easier to report and respond to fires. New technology improved fire fighting efforts so much that by the 1950s, there were only a few hundred lookouts left in service. About 77 of these original towers were once spread across California. Now, only a fraction of these are still in service, and many are staffed by volunteers.

Cal Fire no longer uses lookouts in Southern California because of poor visibility due to air pollution. The few that remain, however, are still critical in the more remote areas of Northern California, where cell phone service is limited. These fire lookouts are usually staffed throughout the fire season, which is intensifying dramatically due to the effects of climate change.

Fighting Fire from a Glass Tower

The first thing one notices upon climbing into the fire lookout tower on Herd’s Peak is the sweeping 360-degree view from the cabin.

Windows line each side of the room. There is a small bed in the corner next to a desk and a sink on the opposite side. An Osborn Fire Finder stands in the center of the room. It’s a flat circular map resembling a lazy Susan perched on a wooden base.

Each day, Clark wakes up at 5 a.m., makes himself breakfast and coffee, then does a scan of the entire landscape on the tower’s catwalk. For this initial scan, he uses his eyes. If he were to spot a plume of smoke, however, Clark would double-check the area with binoculars.

When he confirms that there is indeed a fire, the first thing he does is consult a small weathered map hanging from the ceiling in the corner. A pushpin with a thin string attached represents the tower on the map. Clark drags the string out in the direction of the fire. Another nearby lookout will do the same on their map, and together they will triangulate the precise location of the fire. It used to require a consensus of three fire lookouts to confirm the precise location of a fire, but this changed as there became fewer and fewer lookout staff.

“Used to be that on every pine mountain you saw, there was a lookout,” says Clark. Now, he is one of the few lookouts left. Over the eight seasons that he has worked as a lookout across the state, he has helped stop hundreds of small fires. Most are caught before they get out of control, so the public rarely hears about them.

Clark walks over to the Osborn Fire Finder in the center of the room and explains how he uses the mechanical device to locate a fire. “A square on this map is one square mile. [The map] goes 20 miles in every direction, and we sit right in the center.”

The degrees are marked in notches around the metal ring surrounding the map, and the “V” mark in the brass is the reading point. He points a sleek silver telescope perched above the Fire Finder toward Mount Shasta, located about 18 miles in the distance.

Clark calls his view from the tower a “postcard view” of Mount Shasta. “If there were people wearing fluorescent clothes up there, I could see them climbing the mountain,” he says with a smile.

At around 7:30 a.m., Clark will send in his morning fire report to the Command Center in Yreka, California. “When we call in a fire, there are a lot of things that they want to know,” says Clark. He must report the distance the fire is away from the lookout and note a nearby topographical reference point, like a hilltop with a name. He has previously used Cinder Cone, a volcano in Lassen Volcanic National Park, as a reference point for small nearby fires.

Next, he must note the fire’s size and behavior, as well as the current weather conditions. Finally, he will tell them what color the smoke is. This lets dispatch know what type of fuel is burning. “If the smoke is white, [the fire] is burning in dry fuel, like a campfire or lightning striking a dead tree,” Clark says. Black smoke means the fire is burning live trees full of pitch and sap.

“All this information makes dispatch arrange the response accordingly,” he adds. Depending on the type of fire conditions, dispatch may send air tankers, dozers, or hand crews. It also lets them know how many engines to send to the site. Clark knows it’s generally better to overestimate than to be short men or supplies. 

Time is critical when it comes to fighting fire.

A single fire can go from 10 acres to 500 acres sometimes within the span of an hour, says Clark. Some lookouts nowadays are installed with webcams, which take in a 360-degree view over the course of an hour. Although the webcam allows people to monitor an area from a distance, fires can catch and spread quickly in the time that a camera is pointed elsewhere. 

“Lookouts are the best thing that a forest service can have because human eyes are quicker than cameras,” he adds. If a fire crew doesn’t respond to a fire within an hour’s time, there is a good chance it will get out of control. Thanks to the efforts of the fire service, most small fires that pop up in this part of Siskiyou County are quickly contained.

Through the Lightning and Thunder

Lightning strikes are often responsible for starting clusters of small fires, especially in dry storms.

Thunderstorms develop quickly over Mount Shasta. “Most of our lightning storms are what we call pop-up storms,” says Clark. In the morning he’ll wake up to a clear blue sky and by noon, puffy cumulus clouds will have formed in the sky. When the clouds pass over the mountain, they draw moisture off of the glacier and convection cells cause thunderclouds to form.

Once lightning begins to strike, Clark must remain vigilant.

Sometimes, a week will pass before a fire pops up. Lightning will strike a dead tree and it takes a few days for the burning roots to dry the wet ground from beneath. Once the ground dries, the fire has the opportunity to emerge from the dead stump.

In addition to watching for fires from lightning strikes, Clark must ensure that he himself remains safe in a tall tower that is likely to be struck. He describes experiencing a boom of thunder and a flash of lightning from high up in the tower.

“You’re frozen for a second. You’re blind. You’re deaf, and then your senses come back,” says Clark.

When a thunderstorm is passing overhead, he relies on the lightning rod on top of the tower to absorb most of a lightning strike. He also stands on a short square stool with glass legs that he stores under his desk. Glass is a good insulator and a poor conductor of electricity. When he stands on the stool, the electricity does not travel up toward him. The bed legs are also sitting in ceramic insulators, which work the same as glass insulators. 

When a thunderstorm passes overhead at night, he is sometimes able to witness the phenomenon called St. Elmo’s Fire. This is a type of atmospheric electricity that appears from the ends of pointed objects as glowing feathery discharges of light. In the tower, these branching arcs of light travel from window to window in the same direction for about 20 minutes, says Clark. Once the electricity dissipates, he will carefully touch a metal object. If he doesn’t feel a spark, then it’s finally safe to move around the room.

In addition to striking the tower, lightning will often strike nearby boulders. One large boulder has been stricken so many times, that a glass-type texture resembling obsidian has formed inside. 

A Steward of the Land

The way Clark describes the landscape reveals his deep love and appreciation for the land.

Clark points toward the Oregon border. He shows me Mount Ashland and Pilot rock to the north, the town of Dunsmuir to the south, and Medicine Lake to the east. The tower is surrounded by a total of four volcanoes; Two sister volcanoes that comprise Mount Shasta and two nearby shield volcanos.

Directing our view toward Shasta Valley, he points out the bumps that dot the landscape. These bumps are gas bubbles and lava tubes that popped up during the volcanic eruptions, he says. Pluto’s Cave is a partially collapsed lava tube formed by one of those gas bubbles. Clark likens these tubes to tree roots stemming from the main volcano.

In addition to marveling at the geography, Clark loves the interactions he is able to have with the local wildlife. Eagles land on his railing, ravens squawk at him for food, and he’s had friendly encounters with snakes outside the tower. He is, however, not a fan of spiders.

Clark hopes to care for the land so that his grandchildren will be able to experience its beauty well into the future. “I try to teach stewardship to the people who come see me,” Clark says. By educating the rare visitor to the tower, Clark hopes he can pass on his knowledge and inspire a new generation of caretakers for the land.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Forest Service or CalFire. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors is not intended to malign any person or organization.

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