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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Top of the world: Idaho Fire Lookouts project traces the legacy of forest fire spotters

KINGSTON, Idaho – Most summer weekends, Billy Cooter and Cat House go hunting for history.

The friends from the Silver Valley set out into the Idaho backcountry, searching for fire lookout sites, places established decades ago to aid in the nation’s battle against wildfires.

Success isn’t always guaranteed. Sure, sometimes they have good directions or a reservation at a tower that’s still standing. Many more lookout towers are gone, demolished or burned down.

So usually, House and Cooter are navigating old trails or bushwhacking toward places where a lookout once stood, hoping to stumble upon a sliver of physical confirmation that someone was once there looking for fires.

It might be a piece of an old foundation, or a vintage fire finding tool. Maybe just a few bolts stuck in a tree, or some telephone wire.

Whatever they find, it fills out a piece of the forest’s story, and it makes the journey worthwhile.

“It’s a big treasure hunt,” House said.

House and Cooter are the people behind Idaho Fire Lookouts, a project dedicated to keeping alive the legacy of the state’s once vast network of firespotters.

They launched a website for the project a few years ago and began posting photos and reports from various lookout towers, mostly in North Idaho. The website has entries for about 100 lookouts, all of them ones Cooter and House have visited.

Their Facebook and Instagram pages provide a steady stream of photos from their latest adventures, and they’ve produced stickers and hats celebrating the mountaintop gems they love so much.

People are noticing. At one of their favorite places, the Sprag Pole Museum in Murray, Idaho, they have an exhibit displaying their lookout photos, and they spoke to a crowd of about 100 people there in May.

They’ve also raised money for preservation projects, and they’ve become fixtures in the small but dedicated world of fire lookout fanatics.

“They’ve just taken it on and just really run with it in doing everything they can to support lookouts and saving them and restoring them,” said Gary Weber, the treasurer of the Forest Fire Lookouts Association.

Their work is a celebration of a piece of history and a craft that has been slowly vanishing over the past several decades. Idaho once had more than 1,000 lookouts, a proliferation that came as part of the government’s response to the Big Burn of 1910.

Ray Kresek, the keeper of the Fire Lookout Museum in Spokane, said that fire, which torched more than 3 million acres in North Idaho and western Montana, convinced the U.S. Forest Service that it needed to “do something to keep the forest from burning.”

Lookouts became a key piece of the agency’s budding war on wildfire. By stationing people on peaks across the West, they could spot fires sooner and respond faster.

There were a lot of them. Kresek, who is known as the preeminent lookout authority in the region, wrote a book titled “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest,” in which he covered 3,300 lookout sites across Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The sites didn’t all look the same. There were staggeringly tall towers and low slung cabins. There were also more sparse sites – a crow’s nest in a tree, or maybe just an open spot on a peak with a good view.

Technology has reshaped the business of detecting fires, beginning with the use of airplanes to search for smoke. Now, satellites, GPS technology and other advances have given fire managers new ways to spot starts without the help of someone on a mountaintop.

Lookout advocates quibble with this shift, arguing that the value of a person scanning the forest can’t be replaced entirely by technology, but the Forest Service has been steadily reducing its numbers of staffed lookouts. On the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, just four will be staffed this summer.

The decline left thousands of lookout sites across the forests of the West vacant. Unoccupied cabins and towers were often dismantled, a decision driven at least in part by concerns over vandalism and liability.

Not all of them were torn down. Many that remain standing are part of the Forest Service’s cabin rental program, which is at least partially responsible for the creation of Idaho Fire Lookouts.

House, a graphic artist who has lived in Idaho’s Silver Valley for more than a decade, first got into fire lookouts by renting them out and staying in them year after year.

“I don’t know what it is about them,” House said. “They’re so fascinating.”

She met Cooter a few years ago at a photography workshop that was held at a lookout. Cooter, who works in sales and has also lived around North Idaho for more than a decade, had not been to a lookout before the workshop.

The two found they had a lot in common, aside from an affinity for toying with a camera, and they became friends. Soon they were hiking and camping together, often at fire lookouts. They both like history, and they started doing more research on the places they were visiting.

On one trip, House had an idea: They should write a book. Something that cataloged the lookouts in Idaho and shared their history, along with information about how to get to them.

Cooter was in, but he thought they should start with a website to begin recording information and putting it all together.

Since 2021, they’ve updated the site regularly, adding trip reports and photos from all the places they’ve been. They’ve also posted interviews with people who are still staffing lookouts. The website has all but eclipsed any plans for a book – it’s an easier way to get the information out, and they can keep adding to it.

Over time, the project grew, becoming a way for them to help advocate for restoring and preserving fire lookouts. They started selling lookout-themed stickers and more. They started talking with people like Weber and Kresek, whose book they use religiously to plan their adventures.

Last year, they attended a Forest Fire Lookout Association conference in St. Regis, Montana, where they got to know other lookout advocates.

“I feel like we’re slowly becoming part of this community and its own unique culture,” Cooter said.

Weber said the pair are “a breath of fresh air” among lookout advocates.

“Compared to a lot of the rest of us, they’re still a younger crowd, and definitely into the social media side and stirring up interest that way,” Weber said.

Still, the main focus for Cooter and House is being out in the woods. Every January, they sit down and plan out the year, filling the calendar with trips to search for bits of history they can reach out and touch. This summer, they have plans to visit between 20 and 30 lookout sites.

Misadventure happens. Weber joined them on a recent hike to look for an old site at Nira Point in the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River drainage. They found a few things that indicated they were in the right spot, but nothing major.

On the way down, the trail they were using vanished, leaving them to bushwhack their way downhill. Some 16 miles later, Cooter’s knee was angry but they were at the bottom of the mountain and ready to laugh about it.

Other days are easier. A road might take them to within 100 feet of an old site, and all they have to do is clamber uphill for a short spell.

“We’ve had days where we’ve done two and three of those in one day,” Cooter said.

They never know what they’ll see. On a recent trip to Blacktail Mountain Lookout near Nordman, Idaho, they saw an alidade, a tool that was used to pinpoint the location of a fire. They also found a name inscribed on a rock, which they believe belonged to someone who worked at the lookout in the 1930s.

The pieces aren’t always easy to find. On a recent Tuesday evening, Cooter and House drove up to Little Guard Peak, where the Little Guard Lookout still stands.

It’s one of the pair’s favorite spots. They’ve stayed there with friends in the past, and they’ve hiked from there to other peaks with vacant lookout sites.

From their research, though, Cooter and House know that there was once another cabin near the Little Guard Lookout. They scanned a boulder field just south of the tower, wondering aloud about an old driveway, but they found nothing that indicated there used to be a cabin there.

Looking around, though, they found one of the other reasons they love spending so much time in the high country. Even with low hanging clouds and intermittent rain, they saw mountains in all directions, the sort of views that make anyone understand the joy of chasing the ghosts of lookouts past.

“They’re never in ugly spots,” Cooter said.