A fire lookout (sometimes also called a fire watcher) is a person assigned the duty to look for fire from atop a building known as a fire lookout tower. These towers are used in remote areas, normally on mountain tops with high elevation and a good view of the surrounding terrain, to spot smoke caused by a wildfire.
Once a possible fire is spotted, "Smoke Reports", or "Lookout Shots" are relayed to the local Emergency Communications Center (ECC), often by radio or phone. A fire lookout can use a device known as an Osborne Fire Finder to obtain the radial in degrees off the tower, and the estimated distance from the tower to the fire.
Part of the lookout's duties include taking weather readings and reporting the findings to the Emergency Communications Center throughout the day. Often several lookouts will overlap in coverage areas and each will “cross” the same smoke, allowing the ECC to use triangulation from the radials to achieve an accurate location of the fire.
Once ground crews and fire suppression aircraft are active in fire suppression, the lookout personnel continue to search for new smoke plumes which may indicate spotting and alterations that pose risks to ground crews.
Working in a fire lookout tower in the middle of a wilderness area takes a hardy type of person, one who can work with no supervision, and is able to survive without any other human interaction. Some towers are accessible by automobile, but others are so remote a lookout must hike in, or be lifted in by helicopter. In many locations, even modern fire lookout towers do not have electricity or running water.
Most fire lookout jobs are seasonal through the fire season. Fire lookouts can be paid staff or volunteer staff. Some volunteer organizations in the United States have started to rebuild, restore and operate aging fire lookout towers.
Although it was considered as “man’s work” in the U.S., women have been doing the job almost from its beginnings.
The 2016 video game Firewatch follows the story of a fire lookout, Henry, in Shoshone National Forest after the Yellowstone fires of 1988.
‘Desolation Angels’, a semi-autobiographical novel by Jack Kerouac published in 1965, the opening section of which is taken almost directly from the journal Kerouac kept when he was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state.
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