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Fire lookouts hang on to lofty legacy

Sun., Aug. 12, 2012, 10:29 p.m.

Fire lookouts had their heydays in the first half of the 20th century, especially during a building boom on national forests and other public lands during the Great Depression.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was dispatched to help erect cabins and towers for fire detection on peaks with the best views of the landscape below.

While some remaining fire lookouts are accessible by rough mountain roads, many are still reached only by trail.

However, after more than 60 years of service, most of the wooden sentinels and those who staffed them have met a setback more formidable than any wildfire: technology. Aircraft, computers and imaging have taken over their lofty purpose.

The Idaho Panhandle was once the mecca of fire lookouts with nearly 300 towers topping mountains in roughly 150 miles from Priest Lake to the St. Joe River country. Only about two dozen of those lookouts are still in use, nearly half of them as recreational rentals.

Lookout Mountain, which still holds an active lookout in the Idaho Panhandle north of Nordman, rewards day hikers with one of the best possible views of Upper Priest Lake.

Lookouts were demolished almost as quickly as they were built in a razing campaign that surged across the country in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in Washington:

• Of the 678 fire lookout sites, fewer than 90 still have standing structures.

• About 20 lookouts are staffed five days or more a season by various agencies or tribes.

• About 50 lookouts are maintained for emergency use.

To save some of the historic structures, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies were convinced to rent some of the cabins and towers to campers. Although Idaho and Montana have a higher number of lookouts available to the public, only about four Washington lookouts have been restored for rentals.

The Quartz Mountain Lookout in Mount Spokane State Park is a room with a view that can be rented. The lookout formerly was on top of Mount Spokane. Instead of being destroyed when it was decommissioned, it was disassembled so State Parks staff and volunteers could relocate it.

Other Eastern Washington peaks, accessible by hiking trails, that have or have had fire lookouts on their summits include:

Mount Bonaparte, Strawberry Mountain (site), Fir Mountain (site), Thirteenmile Mountain (site), Barnaby Buttes (site), White Mountain (site), Columbia Mountain (restored), Copper Butte (site), Taylor Ridge (site), Rogers Mountain (site), Abercrombie Mountain (site), Hall Mountain (site), Grassy Top (site), Crowell Ridge (site), Sullivan Mountain, Shedroof Mountain, Thunder Mountain (site), Kalispell Rock (site),

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