Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park

1910 was one of the worst forest fire years in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires torched more than three million acres of virgin forest in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and in the process, destroyed enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long. 1910 also happened to be the year that Glacier National Park was established. It would literally be a baptism of fire for our eighth national park. More than 120,000 acres burned in Glacier, including a 23,000-acre blaze near Kintla Creek. The situation in the park that year would be exacerbated by the lack of an organized firefighting infrastructure, very little equipment, few trails, and practically no roads.

As a result of that infamous year, Glacier Park would find itself on the leading edge of fire management throughout the first half of the 20th Century. According to Mitch Burgard's Fire Blog on the park website, Glacier achieved several firsts:

• Glacier was the first National Park to have a dedicated fire crew (prior to this time the Army/Calvary and, later, the National Forest Service were solely in charge of fighting forest fires).

• In the early 1920’s Glacier was the first National Park to bring the new technology of ‘portable’ (horse drawn) pumps into the United States from Canada.

• Glacier established the first fire management plan in the National Park Service. In 1929 a newly appointed “fire control expert” at the national office used Glacier’s plan as a benchmark. It would become the model which other plans were measured against for the next decade.

• In 1946, Glacier became the first National Park to utilize Smokejumpers.

The park was also quick to build fire lookout towers. Although most of Glacier’s lookouts were built in the 1930s, two were already constructed by 1923, both of which had phone line connections.

Most of the lookouts in the park had the same basic design; a two story wooden structure with a windowless dirt floor storage area, topped by a 14 x 14 foot ‘cab’ in which the fire lookouts worked and lived.

There were two notable exceptions to this basic design, however. One was the Red Eagle Lookout, a 60-foot steel tower that was built in 1960, but destroyed in 1986. The other, Swiftcurrent Lookout, which still stands today atop Swiftcurrent Mountain, has a stone foundation, and a gable roof made with heavy timber framing and a flagstone and mortar roof surface. The park opted for a much sturdier design in order to protect the lookout from the harsh weather and strong winds that buffet the 8436-foot peak.

I would assume this to be true for all the towers in Glacier, but according to Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, by Ray Kresek, the Numa Ridge Lookout has a heavy wooden panel with 200 spikes driven through it. With its sharp points sticking out three inches, the panel is dropped in place on the stairway each night as a security measure against grizzly bears!

Glacier still staffs four fire lookouts each season. Traditionally these have been Huckleberry Mountain, Numa Ridge, Scalplock Mountain and Swiftcurrent Mountain. However, in 2009, and for the first time in more than 30 years, the park also staffed Loneman Lookout in the Middle Fork area.

Lookout work is mostly a solitary job with limited amenities and long shifts where firewatchers work at least 10 straight days during the summer fire season.

In his book, Kresek published several journal entries from lookouts that worked at Numa Ridge over the years. There were many complaints about having to do chores. They seemed to come out of boredom, rather than the physical work itself. Apparently there were other hazards that lookouts had to deal with that weren’t in the job description. On September 12, 1950, firewatcher Scotty Beaton made this entry:

“Found mud in water barrel; put there by kid from McFarland’s dude ranch; same kid busted crosshairs on firefinder, bent nails on bear board, and ruined my binoculars on the hot stove.”

Speaking of Numa Ridge, Edward Abbey, author of the Monkey Wrench Gang, once spent a summer in 1975 manning the lookout. In A Lookout’s Journal, Abbey summed-up his experience with this quote: “Bears, beans, bores and bugs: Numa Ridge Lookout.”

As we move forward into the 21st Century it will be interesting to see if Glacier National Park continues to stay on the cutting edge with the latest technologies in fire management. In the very near future it appears that unmanned drones will be used to detect and monitor wildfires, and may even be used to suppress fires.

Of the 17 fire lookouts that once stood in the park, 9 still remain, all of which can be reached by trail. Here’s a list of lookouts in Glacier, present and past:

Apgar Lookout / Built: 1929
Access: 2.8 mile hike on the Apgar Lookout Trail near Apgar

Huckleberry Lookout / Built: Original in 1923, rebuilt in 1933
Access: 6 mile hike Huckleberry Lookout Trail near Apgar

Loneman Lookout / Built: 1930 and rehabed in 2003
Access: 7 mile hike on Loneman Lookout Trail off Highway 2 near Middle Fork

Mount Brown Lookout / Built: 1928
Access: 5.4 mile hike from Lake McDonald Lodge

Numa Ridge Lookout / Built: 1934
Access: 5.6 mile hike on the Numa Ridge Lookout Trail at Bowman Lake

Porcupine Ridge Lookout / Built: 1939
Access: Porcupine Lookout Trail via Waterton Valley Trail out of Goat Haunt

Scalplock Lookout / Built: 1931
Access: 4.7 mile hike on Scalplock Trail in Walton

Swiftcurrent Lookout / Built: 1936
Access: 6.2 mile hike from The Loop, 7.8 miles from Many Glacier, or 9.9 miles from Logan Pass

Bear Mountain Point Lookout / Built: 1935 / Destroyed: 1965

Curly Bear Lookout / Built: 1934 / Destroyed: 1963

Elk Mountain Lookout / Built: 1930 / Destroyed: 1963

Heaven's Peak Lookout / Built: 1945 / Building is still standing after being abandoned in 1953, and was scheduled to be stabilized in 2012 in order to preserve it.

Heaven's Peak South Lookout / Built: 1943 / Destroyed: 1963

Red Eagle Lookout / Built: 1960 / Destroyed: 1986

Reynolds Ridge Lookout / Built: 1931 / Destroyed: 1963

Riverview Mountain Lookout / Built: 1923 / Abandoned: 1930s

Waterton Lake Lookout / Built: 1930s / Abandoned 1940s

For more information on the lookouts you can visit the Fire Lookout website and the National Park Service’s List of Classified Structures.

I’ll sign-off today with this lookout journal entry from September 3, 1980:

“Autumn is in the air. A pair of golden eagles are hovering in the thermals around the station. The western sky is gorgeous, pink with crimson ruffles. CFCN Radio is playing the Hugo Winterhalter Orchestra’s Canadian Sunset. It’s time to bring in the flag. God Bless America!”

Hiking in

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