Overview Of Forest Fire Lookouts

There used to be hundreds of active fire lookouts in Idaho, now only a handful are staffed. Some still stand tall but idle. A few have been restored as alluring backcountry rentals. Others are slowly melting back into the mountains. Whatever their condition, lookouts are icons of the state, historic reminders of decades of fire fighting in Idaho.

A historic photo of a fire lookout

"Fire lookouts began as a matter of convenience. A likely tree and likely spot on a mountain top or a ridge top. They would put a ladder, either a wooden rung ladder or maybe they'd drive large spikes in the tree and climb it. In Idaho there were probably a hundred of these tree lookouts in the beginning. They went from there to more of them. A lot were built during the Civilian Conservation Corps era of the 1930s. The earliest cabins were cupola type cabins where you'd live on the ground floor and then a small cab upstairs or maybe just a tent camp. And they went from there to live-in style pole towers. They'd cut the poles on the mountain, sometimes 100 feet tall towers and they were livable towers. And that was the ideal set up because that way the lookout on duty could go about his daily activities and scan the horizon every ten minutes or so all day and night if necessary."

A historic photo of a fire lookout tower on the edge of a mountain

"Idaho had more lookouts than any state and the most congested area of lookouts in the entire world. In the 1930s there were over 900 of them in Idaho. Their intent was to put a lookout on every mountain top and it was kind of like a one-man fire department. The lookout would spot the fire and if he was the closest one to it he would take off and if the smoke got bigger the next nearest lookout would take off and so on until either the smoke went out or else they sent the whole gang in. And that's how they were done and it was very effective. They were able to keep fires small by jumping on them quick."

"Lookouts started to decline at the end of World War Two. Then the coming of the aircraft for air patrol purposes was somewhat more thrifty but not as efficient. Nothing is more efficient than someone sitting in a lookout tower twenty-four hours a day and someone sitting in another lookout five or ten miles away to be able to triangulate a cross shot with the fire finder on a smoke. Nothing is more efficient than that."
— Ray Kresek, author, "Fire Lookouts of the Northwest"