Forest fire lookouts have had their ups and downs in the past century, but the trend throughout the country has been down.
Revised fire policies, airplanes and technology have made many lookouts obsolete, while tight Forest Service budgets, wear and tear and vandalism have taken a high toll on the rest.
Of the 992 lookout sites developed in Idaho during the last century (peaking just before World War II), about 195 are still standing and about 55 are still staffed during fire season, according the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
The Northwest is a leader in preserving lookouts for rentals. The number fluctuates yearly because of maintenance or other issues, but the current number of lookout sites in the rental pool is about 14 in Idaho (six of them in the Idaho Panhandle), 21 in Montana, 19 in Oregon and two in Washington.
The most recent losses and potential losses in the region’s lookout lineup include Scenery Mountain near Libby and Spades Mountain east of Hayden Lake.
“Scenery Mountain lookout was demolished by the Forest Service recently and I thought that was very unfortunate,” said Gary Weber, a Coeur d’Alene-based officer in the Forest Fire Lookout Association. “It was near town yet on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. It had opportunities to be of value to the community and the public.
“Spades Mountain is along a major ATV (all-terrain vehicle) trail and it’s been targeted for removal because of severe vandalism,” he said.
Weber’s updates on other Inland Northwest lookouts include:
Arid Peak: Removed from the rental program until winter damage can be fixed.
Spyglass: Designated as a historic property. Stair flights removed to prevent public access.
Huckleberry: Options for restoration are limited because it’s a Forest Service facility on state land.
Little Guard: In the rental program, getting upgrades in recent years by a group of retired smoke jumpers.
Surveyor’s Ridge in the Avery District, Lunch Peak in the Sandpoint District, Shorty Peak and Deer Ridge in the Bonners Ferry District all are in good shape and in the rental program.
Little Snowy Top: A simple but decaying lookout with views into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, restored periodically by volunteers. Repairs attempted this month by fire crews, but not finished at last report. Like Mallard Peak, it’s open to public use.
Staffed lookouts this season include Indian Mountain and South Baldy, as well as Sundance and Lookout Mountain, which are on Idaho state lands.
Hughes Ridge lookout near Priest Lake is being repaired and should be ready for staffing next year. Ditto for Middle Sister on the St. Joe.
Gisborn lookout southeast of Priest Lake is available for staffing as needed.