by Ruby Aaron
Six years after the designation of what was then called “Forest Reserves,” President Theodore Roosevelt transferred the care of our nation’s forests from the Department of Interior to the newly founded United States Forest Service (US Forest Service, “Our History”). The mission of the Forest Service was and still remains to care for the land and protect the people on the land (US Forest Service, “What We Believe”). Five short years after its inception in 1905, a small fire erupted on the Blackfeet National Forest in northwestern Montana. While the district was optimistic about their ability to control the upcoming fire season, the Forest Service was understaffed, underfunded, and unprepared for what would come. This small fire was the first of many that plagued the western region, and the Forest Service struggled to combat them. By early August, the entire region was facing drought conditions. Starting August 10th, the agency headquarters began receiving reports of fires spreading throughout the six National Forests of Montana as well as the panhandle of Idaho and into Washington and Oregon. With the Forest Service’s manpower and supplies dwindling, President William Howard Taft deployed over 4,000 soldiers to assist the civilian firefighting force. The federal government’s resources were stretched to the breaking point.
On August 20th, hurricane-like winds swept across the country, igniting embers and low flames across the Northern Rockies and sweeping flames into new territory. By August 21st, there was no hope of stopping the fires, only of avoiding them. One forest ranger recalls flames up to a hundred feet high, “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell”. 1,736 fires consumed an estimated 5 million acres of private and federal land across the nation, destroying 7.5 billion feet of timber. As the Forest Service recovered from the fires, their fire detection and prevention policies were called into question, with some asking for increased funding and resources to improve the agencies productivity, while others asked for replacement of the agency with science, technology, and manpower to detect and fight fires (Forest Historical Society). Obviously, the Forest Service’s fire detection and prevention was in need of serious change.
With a hope to avoid such devastating fires in the future, the Forest Service began to focus on early detection of fires. In the spring of 1911 Fire Lookouts began being built in national forests across the country. Aided immensely by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided work for unemployed, unmarried men from 1933-1942, the Forest Service erected nearly 4,000 fire lookouts across the United States by 1940 (Forest Service, “Fire Lookouts”). Currently, 1,000 of these lookouts remain, of which only half are staffed. Oregon is home to 165 standing lookouts, 112 of which are actively staffed by trained rangers or fire detection cameras (Hill). Recent climate change and deforestation across the globe has provided an ideal environment for forest fires to thrive, placing fire prevention high on the political agendas of all the leading nations (Alkhatib).
Modern fire detection advancements such as satellite imaging, spotter planes, and optical smoke detectors have become increasingly popular in spotting forest fires before they become uncontrollable. Many fire lookout towers have been equipped with cameras and other detection agents and no longer employ human lookout services because of cost and/or safety. However, a Review of Forest Fire Detection Techniques done by Ahmad A. Al Alkhatib, a telecommunication engineer at the University of South Wales, in 2014 indicates that lookout towers equipped with cameras detected significantly less fires than towers manned by a human being. This is likely due to the fact that the trained human eye is capable of detecting smoke plumes at a greater range of distances than a camera. Many organizations responsible for forest fire detection (including Forests NSW, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment) also claim that cameras were significantly slower and less reliable in detecting forest fires than trained human tower observers (Alkhatib). The Mt. Hood National Forest Service shares the same understanding and continues to staff fire lookouts each summer (US Forest Service, “Fire Lookouts”). Since I was eight years old, my family has owned a cabin on National Forest Service Land in central Oregon, and from there we have hiked to the summit Black Butte many times, home to one of Oregon’s active lookouts. This lookout has always fascinated me, and I have always hoped that one day someone manning the lookout would come down and tell me all about it. This year, eager to fulfill this wish, I set about trying to find a lookout operator who could teach me all about the ins and outs of the forest and their summer home.
Twelve miles southeast of Mt. Hood’s highest point, a small tower stands erect on a butte surrounded by Oregon’s most expansive forests. This shelter is Flag Point Lookout, one of the three active fire lookouts in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Flag Point Lookout has been occupied by a lone forest ranger for four months every year since 1924, whose single job is to report fires in the massive forested area from Mt. Hood to Mt. Jefferson and beyond (Kamstra). While the draw of such isolation can be hard to fathom, Forest Service employee Tom Pryor finds it enchanting. Since 2010, Pryor has worked summers as the lookout operator at Flag Point, tracking and reporting forest fires in the surrounding forests. He usually works from June until September Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30am until 6pm unless there is a fire in his range or the district is on ‘red flag’ or thunderstorm warning, in which case, his hours can extend from 7:30am until 6:00pm and into his days off. Wednesday through Sunday, Pryor lives in the lookout, leaving the area only to walk his dog or go hiking, “it’s a government building,” Pryor says, “but there’s a catch 22: after 6pm it’s my home.” Often, we think of the forests as isolated, lonely places, but the truth is that the forest can be a home not only to the wildlife within it, but also to those that take care of it.
To get to Flag Point Lookout, I traveled to Dufur, OR, a small town housing a 1A high school, a handful of shops, and most notably the Balow District Ranger Station. I met Tom Pryor at the Ranger Station, and from there we departed for Flag Point Lookout in a white Forest Service truck. Pryor’s face was weathered but joyful, and a navy blue Mt. Hood Fire hoodie, work pants, and worn brown hiking boots covered his stout frame. He had taken the afternoon off of working with whom he called the ‘mushroom people’ who categorize and record all mushroom species in areas being primed for controlled burns to protect endangered and valuable species (Pryor). Pryor is employed by the US Forest Service during the summer, and for the rest of the year works on Forest Service projects in and around the Dalles. Pryor was first employed as a lookout operator in 2010 when his best friend, the Assistant Fire Management Officer, offered him the position because it had been unexpectedly vacated. At the time, Pryor had recently been laid off as a subcontractor working for Intel, and accepted the position readily. When he spoke about his employment, the difference between his summers in the tower and the inconsistency of his day-to-day work was blatantly obvious. Pryor referred to flag point as ‘his tower’ and his connection with the surrounding area became more and more evident as we neared the tower.
We drove for about 25 minutes on a paved road through a canopy of trees before a dense plume of smoke appeared through the pine trees in front of us. Pulling into a lot marked Fifteen Mile Campground, Pryor slowed to a stop alongside a smoking campfire pit. The lone campsite had been abandoned, but a case of beer and a folding chair remained tucked under the park issued picnic table. In the ring, a plume of smoke floated up from hot ashes, but the fire posed little to no threat to the surrounding wooded area because of the moistness in the air and the time of year. Reaching for a radio transmitter clipped to the center counsel, Tom claimed, “I can’t see that [from the tower], it has to be a good 100 feet by 100 feet and then I’d see the smoke.” Holding the radio transmitter up to his cracked lips, Pryor called into the Barlow Ranger Station, “Barlow this is Booj on flag point,” He spoke referring to his nickname, Booji, that was given to him 20 years ago and has stuck around since. Once Barlow replied, Pryor reported an abandoned campfire in the ring at Fifteen Mile Campground which the ranger station then forwarded to Columbia Dispatch. Columbia Dispatch ultimately sent another agent to the campground to completely put out the fire. Columbia Dispatch is the Columbia Cascade Communication Center located in Vancouver, WA that is responsible for providing incident dispatch services to the Mt. Hood National Forest, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (Pryor). Pryor’s decision to observe and then report a seemingly harmless fire while off duty demonstrated his commitment to care for the forest in every way possible.
Five minutes later, Pryor steered the truck up the base of a rocky road inclined at almost 45 degrees. “This is my road,” he crooned. He spoke of the road with so much admiration and respect that it seemed like an extension of his family. “It’s funny,” Pryor told me, “this part of the drive is only 3.3 miles, but it takes the longest.” He was not kidding. For the next twenty five minutes, we plunged through potholes the size of small craters and over roots that had been there for longer than we’d both been alive. At one point, Pryor slowed to a rolling stop and lowered the driver side window. Reaching out his hand to stroke the coarse trunk of massive evergreen pine, Tom greeted the tree. “Hey girl,” he murmured softly, “How have you been?” It was at that moment I realized why I was there, in Dufur, OR, to talk to a man who spends his summers in a tower far away from anyone else. I had come to see the story of this forest through the eyes of someone who loves it more than anything else.
As we approached the lookout, Pryor told me of a fire a few years ago that had consumed the unburned brush just a few miles away from the large tree that greeted him on the drive in. The fire, while not very large or threatening was the closest fire to the tower that Pryor has experienced and he himself reported it to Columbia Dispatch. As the lookout became visible over a large rock pile at the summit of the peak (seen in Image 1), Pryor parked the car between a wooden A-frame building and a small octagonal outhouse about 200 feet away from the tower. The A-frame building houses the radio transmission equipment that allows Pryor to communicate with the Columbia Dispatch Center and the Barlow District Ranger Station. As evident in Image 1, the sloping roof is covered with solar panels that power the lighting and electricity in the tower. In the image, the top of the lookout tower is visible over the rocks. The current structure is a 41 foot treated timber tower with a 14 by 14 foot R-6 Flat Cab atop it that was built in 1973. The summit was originally developed in 1941 and the lookout was a 40 foot pole with a perch on top that the operator would man during the day (Kamstra). The current Flag Point Lookout rests 5,710 feet above sea-level and is climbable only by five flights of ladder-like stairs. A narrow cat-walk circles the entire building, and a gearbox and pulley system in the southeast corner enable occupants to haul up firewood, water, and other heavy supplies (Pryor). The blue peeling front door faces westward, the single interruption of 360 degrees of floor to ceiling single paned glass windows. There is no running water, and Pryor relies on five gallon containers that he supplies for drinking, bathing, and dish washing. The room is sparsely furnished with a double bed, a propane cookstove and refrigerator and a wood burning stove. The space is rugged to say the least, but a glance in any direction out the dusty glass windows explains exactly why anyone would want to be here.
The room is centered around the lookout’s prized possession, an Osborne Firefinder (seen in Image 2). The Firefinder was designed by W. B. Osborne and has been used for over a century to pinpoint fire locations down to the quarter of a mile. It requires no power to operate and is an extremely valued fire fighting tool across the country. Unfortunately, Leupold and Stevens, the last manufacturer of the Firefinder has not produced parts since 1975, and the condition of Firefinders across the country is slowly deteriorating (Fleming & Robertson, 2003). The Osborne Firefinder in Flag Point Lookout remains in relatively perfect condition, its only hindrance being the map’s lack of topographical accuracy and warped quality. The Osborne Firefinder divides the surrounding 12,000 square miles into 6 x 6 mile squares which can be divided further to pinpoint a fire or location. To use the firefinder, one lines up the crosshairs with the smoke, then records the degrees and minute marks that line up on the edge of the circle. This information is then transmitted to the local dispatch center who will initiate the fire fighting. Upon our arrival at the lookout, Pryor taught me how to operate the Firefinder to pinpoint the location of a nearby controlled burn fire, and then showed me how to report the fire to Columbia Dispatch. When Pryor spoke of and used the Osborne Firefinder, he expressed such knowledge and admiration of the tool that he easily conveyed its overwhelming importance to the success of his job.
Atop the tower, a glance in any direction out the windows explains exactly what keeps Pryor coming back year after year. Looking westward beyond the colorful line of Tibetan prayer flags flapping along the exterior roofline, Mt. Hood’s entire southeastern flank reflects the midday sun back across 12 miles of uninterrupted evergreen forest. To the northwest, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainer puncture the horizon, their bases enveloped in a coat of rich green trees. Even on a slightly hazy day, Mt. Jefferson, The Three Sisters and Broken Top emerge from over 150 miles away. While it can be challenging to come to terms with such extreme isolation, Pryor finds company in the consistency of the views and in the 200 plus hikers that visit him each summer. Having lived in the lookout for six summers, Pryor has made friends who carry in oreos and pepperoni pizza with sausage every summer to make his stay a little less lonely. On occasion, families will spend the night in tents set up at the base of the lookout, stargazing late into the night while Pryor teaches them about fire safety and detection.
Fire Lookout Operator is a job that requires as much self acceptance as it does skill. Being alone in a tower for the better part of four months has helped Tom Pryor come to terms with himself and helped him realize that the best job he has feels like no job at all, but instead is a way for him to give back to the forest that continues to give so much to him. During the time that he lives in Flag Point Lookout, the forest is Tom Pryor’s home; the trees are his friends, and mother nature is his host. At Flag Point, Pryor’s only job is to protect the forest, and he takes it seriously. When I imagined meeting Pryor, I had anticipated a forced, awkward, car-ride interview that would give me just as much information as I needed. But luckily for me, I left Flag Point with a renewed understanding of the importance of those who work for the preservation of the forests, a fascination with fire lookouts and their cozy interiors, and the forest as my new friend. It can be hard to imagine loving the forest when fat drops of rain are sliding off her branches, when her limbs crack like bones, or when blazing fires consume her bounty, but the forest will always protect those that protect her. Flag Point Lookout showed me both the beauty of life and the pain of destruction within the forest, and it taught me to care. Tom Pryor told me that it’s hard for anyone to understand why he chooses to do what he does until they’ve been there, living in a 196 square foot room with no one to comfort them but the forest. People will come and go just as fires do, but the forest will always prevail because of the immense amount of love and care that has been and will continue to be poured into it by Pryor and many others just like him. Fire Lookouts and their operators have the power to protect forests from exterior destruction not only through their occupant’s work, but also through their unique ability to teach ordinary people how to love the forest.
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