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Budget cuts are pushing the Methow Valley Ranger District closer to ending a storied and romantic tradition here: paying people to perch on the top of mountains in high lookouts, watching over the back country for fires and communicating for crews deep in the mountains.

Goat Peak Lookout in 1923. The firefinder is in the cupola. Photo by Ferd Haase from the Shirley Haase Collection. (click to enlarge)

“Funding is down for the forest in the area of fire prevention,” said Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu. Initially, Liu thought there would be no money for staffed lookouts at all, but with some district-level budget shifts, he believes ”we can at least staff the Goat Peak Lookout.”

Liu said that the district will likely still have a 15-person hand crew and two engines for firefighting stationed in the valley. That’s the same level as last season.

The ranger district plans to keep Goat Peak open because so many summer visitors climb the mountain above Mazama to visit the lookout, which has views over the deep backcountry of the Pasayten Wilderness. Besides a public host and a well-experienced pair of fire-finding eyes, the lookout also provides a backup safety communication link. If other links aren’t working, crews “often can still hit Goat Peak” by radio, said Liu.

“We may consider opening the Leecher Lookout depending on volunteer interest,” added Liu.

Winthrop resident and town council member Mort Banasky was paid to spend last summer in Leecher Mountain Lookout, which stands above the Twisp River drainage. She has staffed Methow Valley lookouts for almost three decades, and is known for her time on First Butte above the Chewuch River valley.

Home for an early Forest Service employee on Lookout Mountain. Communication was by telephone. (click to enlarge)

Liu said both Leecher and Goat Peak have recently been maintained, but since then, newer requirements have come out. Liu said it will cost to review and make sure a lookout meets the newest propane and lighting protection standards. “We hope to have very little to do,” on Goat Peak and, possibly - if the right volunteer shows up - Leecher Mountain, he said.

Nation-wide the Forest Service is on alert about propane systems in old lookouts because of a recent close call: an employee was poisoned with propane, but survived by spending the night with the windows and doors open though temperatures were in the 20s.

Bill Austin, known as “Lightning Bill”, staffed Goat Peak Lookout last year, as he has been for 17 seasons. He said in 1995 Goat Peak got about 600 lookout visitors, but estimates that has built to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 each season.

Austin’s first lookout job was on Chelan Butte in 1978. “I spotted a fire my first day,” he said. Since then he has spent 36 seasons as a firefighter, helitack crew member, and lookout. His nickname came from the fact that “I love lighting….and I respect it.” Austin grew up in the Methow Valley. His father, Frank Austin, had been a lookout before him.

“I’m praying I got a job,” this season on Goat Peak, Lightning Bill said.

Fire detection and fire-fighting technology has moved a long way since the beginning. In August 1911 the Okanogan Independent newspaper reported: “The trail from Sweat Creek Ranger Station to the lookout on Buck’s Peak has been swamped and cleared. In the Buck Mountain district 35 shovels, ten axes and nine mattocks, all with red handles, have been secured to be used in case of fire. It is thought that the red handled tools will not catch on fire or be lost so easily as the unpainted ones were.”

A log cabin with a pole to climb like a ship’s mast to check for fires, served as the Buck Mountain Lookout in 1923. (click to enlarge)

In August 1912, the Independent reported that “the officials of the Okanogan national forest are feeling highly elated over the results accomplished with the heliographs that were introduced as a means of communication between the lookout stations in the forest this year. It has been proven beyond a doubt that they are practical instruments where inadvisable to place a telephone. . . Four out of the six lookout stations in the Okanogan Forest are equipped with telephones, all of which have been temporarily connected with some trunk line by use of insulated wire. The insulated wire has not proven as satisfactory as was hoped, however. Where cattle or other animals are being grazed to any extent it is practically useless to lay the wire on the ground as it breaks when the cattle become entangled in it. It has likewise been found impractical to lay it in a trench with soil over it as the insulation is defective enough to allow the dampness to cause a short circuit. The most satisfactory way in which it has been tried is to lay it over the limbs of trees or anything to keep it out of danger of stock.”

Lookout and Leecher mountains had heliographs, which depended on sunlight to send bright flashes in Morse code. Aeneas and Funk mountains had acetylene gas signals, which worked in the night. In 1912, they all had telephones lines also—such as they were in those times.

1913 and 1914 saw crews building log structures sporting cupolas with windows on all four sides. Lookouts could stay in cabins instead of tents.

Heliographs, like this one on Lookout Mountain, used sunlight to flash Morse code messages between lookouts and stations. They quickly gave way to telephones and then radios. (click to enlarge)

The heliograph and acetylene gas lights fizzled in favor of the telephone, and the telephone eventually gave way to the radio. Lookouts increased.

By 1921, the Methow Valley Journal reported that “Gwen Creveling will be the fire lookout on North Twenty Mile this summer. Miss Creveling is one of the very few women in the United States to serve in these lonely positions.” Gwennie Creveling’s married name was Gwennie Yockey; she was a seasoned lookout at the time of the Journal’s report.

The 1930’s were the peak (so to speak) of lookouts in this area. By then radios were the main communication link. In 1931, the Methow Valley news reported: “Radio Working Fine: The Chelan National Forest has been designated as the first in the entire country to try out this latest method of forest communication. Twelve semi-portable sets have been placed on as many lookouts and about 65 small fourteen pound “portables” are scattered all over the forest in the hands of guards.”

Life as a lookout was not always serene. The Methow Valley Journal reported in September 1932 that “lightning Friday entered into almost too familiar terms with Roy Paul, lookout on Slate Peak. Roy miraculously escaped injury when his cabin was visited by a bolt which played havoc with the electrical equipment and furnishings. Roy had returned from a fire sighted earlier in the day. He had been caught in a heavy rain storm and was changing his clothes while the lightning rang the telephone bells, played hide-and-seek among the arresters, and amused itself by flaying the crags near the cabin. Suddenly there was a blinding flash and a deafening explosion. When the smoke cleared Roy found all fuses and arresters burned out, two pairs of blankets and some clothing consumed, and a cross-cut saw ruined.”

In the following decades, remote weather prediction and lightning detection improved, as did aircraft and firefighting techniques, not to mention communication technology. The need for people stationed all season in high places diminished. Most lookout structures were abandoned or destroyed by the 1950’s to mid-1960’s.

This summer, 2012, around a century after the beginnings, it’s likely that ‘Lightning Bill’ will be this area’s only lookout, perched on Goat Peak above the upper Methow Valley.

Lookouts in 1932

Charles Johnson: fireman
Eight Mile

Bert Julian: lookout
North Twenty Mile

Ferd MacRae: lookout
Goat Peak

Ray Buckley: fireman
Thirty Mile

Carl Albin: fireman/lookout
Remmel Mountain

Duer Johnson: fireman/lookout
First Butte

Roy Chase: fireman/lookout
Burch Mountain

Cliff Burett: fireman/lookout
Dollar Watch Pass

R. G. Dykstra: fireman/lookout
Diamond Point

Al Anderson: fireman/lookout
Bunker Hill

Fred Vanderpool: fireman/lookout
Monument 83

Keith Johnson: fireman/lookout
Point Defiance

Roy Paul: fireman/lookout
Slate Peak

George Haase: fireman/lookout
Milton Mountain

Bob Watkins: fireman/lookout
Driveway Butte

George Storms: fireman/lookout
Sweetgrass Butte

Clyde Risley: fireman
War Creek Guard Station

Grover Brown: fireman/lookout
Midnight Mountain

Court McCain: lookout
Lookout Mountain

Richard Bassett: lookout
Leecher Mountain

Oval Capps: fireman/lookout
Buttermilk Butte

Ted Healam: fireman/lookout
Thrapp Mountain
Okanogan Independent
June 25, 1935

Lookouts Must Have Good Eyes - New Tests Set Up to Try Vision of Men Who Spot Fires in Forests

Men selected for forest fire lookout duty on the high peaks and towers within the national forests must be able to pass a special new eye test devised by the Pacific Northwest forest experiment station, research branch of the United States forest service in Washington and Oregon.

At the fire guard training camps held on each national forest at the beginning of the fire season, this eye test will be given to all candidates for lookout positions. Outdoors, and in the glare of full sunlight, the prospective lookout will be tested, among other things, to determine how far away he can see a circular white spot 3/8 inch in diameter against a dull black background about 1 ½ by 3 feet. Those with good eyesight can see the white spot when it is more than 450 feet away, and persons with exceptionally keen eyesight have seen it at distances of more than 600 feet.

The careful selection and training of men assigned the important duty of reporting forest fires before they have reached large proportions is essential in saving costs of suppression and preventing serious losses of forest resources, it is said. In addition to having keen eyesight, lookouts are chosen for their alertness and ability to use maps, fire finders and other equipment. Lookouts must be able to recognize the first thin haze of smoke which precedes the conflagration. Because of the excessive glare in which they must work, these lookouts are provided by the forest service with a special type of smoked glass goggle to protect their eyes.



Have a comment?

There is a HUGE difference between being alone and lonely. Leecher's big view isn't the Twisp drainage but does include very interesting glacial deposits, much of the valley and lots of forest and mountains. Sorry to see the continued decline of lookouts---and then there was one.

Ardis Bynum


What an amazing legacy to have, dedicated men and women doing their best to keep the forests alive and thriving. In a time before modern technology and tools. Firefighting is such an honorable career. I appreciate all that do it. My dad and uncle were fire fighters. My dad died while fighting a fire when he was 36 yrs old and my uncle went on to become the fire chief of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. They both loved the Methow Valley and in 1949 with other firemen bought an abandoned forest service lookout and moved it to some property for about $150.90. The cabin is still in the family and always will be, but I'm wondering how we can find out the history of that forest service lookout when it was in service.

John Fletcher


Being a fire lookout ranks as the best seasonal jobs imaginable; amazing sunrises, sunsets and a quickly learned respect for the power of mother nature. It was my pleasure to fund college by working at the Sugarloaf lookout in the Entiat District for 2 summers and the Funk Mountain on the Conconully District for an additional 2 seasons.

Paula Christen


Aeneas and Funk mountains had acetylene gas signals, which worked in the night.

A sketch of the type of acetylene lantern used seems to be at the top left here:
in "By Smoke and Flash", pp. 232-235, The Edison Monthly, Vol. 10 Issue 7

Old news tidbits on the Lookouts of Okanogan County can be found here:

Richard Fowell
Los Angeles, CA