HELENA – Ray Brown knows each of the 80 steps that wind in a corkscrew up the 60-foot tower of the Strawberry Butte Lookout.
In 2011, he manned the tower full time.
“This was my home,” Brown said. “I love it up here.”
While working as the fire lookout at Strawberry Butte, Brown lived in the 20-foot-by-12-foot one-room cabin that sits at the base of the lookout tower.
The cabin contains a bunk bed, a few shelves, a fridge and a two-burner stove. Everything runs on propane.
“This is literally living, dining and sleeping,” Brown said.
Brown’s commute every morning involved climbing the 80 steps that lead up the tower to the 8-foot-by-8-foot lookout at the top.
The lookout, on all four sides, is covered in windows, divided into small square panes. Inside, a vintage fire finder takes up most of the small space. Although it dates back to the early 1940s, the fire finder is still used to pinpoint the location of a blaze.
“This is the heart of a lookout,” Brown said. “It’s a really exact way to find fires.”
The fire finder is round, about 14 inches in diameter. The 360 degrees of a compass are marked around its circular base with a map sitting on top. Cross hairs made of horse hair and a slit to look through stick up from the device.
Surrounding the fire finder, which sits on a post in the center of the lookout, is enough space to move around. A folding chair and step stool lean against a wall. Beyond that, there is room for little else. With Brown’s arms outstretched, he can nearly touch two walls of the lookout.
Despite the cramped space, Brown would spend anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day in the lookout, sometimes less or more depending on fire conditions, scanning the hillsides for smoke.
The top of Strawberry Butte sits at 6,100 feet above sea level and from the top of the tower, a person can see the surrounding landscape stretching 70 to 80 miles on a clear day.
“When I come up here, my job really is just to look,” Brown said. “I’ve spent nights up here knowing in the morning I want to get up really early and start looking right away.”
Sometimes he just scans the landscape; sometimes he spends a set amount of time looking through each of the lookout’s panes of glass. If he does spot a blaze, he uses the fire finder to determine its coordinates and in which section it’s located, and then which quadrant of that section and then calls dispatch with a smoke report.
“I can get down to within a meter of where a fire is,” Brown said.
Some lookouts can describe the location within inches. Brown once called in a fire that was about 32 miles away.
A cloud of smoke is fairly easy to spot. In the morning ground fog, or in lookout lingo “water dogs,” can be confused with smoke.
“A lot of new lookouts will get people dispatched to water dogs,” Brown said.
When not looking for smoke, Brown spends much of his time hiking through the hills he surveys from the tower.
“You have to know the country you’re looking at, and you have to know it intimately,” he said.
Knowing the land helps a lookout give an accurate description of where a fire is located. In the old days, lookouts learned the land by walking 12 miles from the lookout and back on the four points of a compass. Lookouts also used to be responsible for fighting fires. After spotting a blaze, they would hike to it and battle the fire until a fire crew got there, which sometimes could take days.
Fire lookouts have been a part of Forest Service history since the agency was formed in 1905. Initially, lookouts climbed trees or rocks to keep an eye out for fires.
“They’d spend nights there, they’d spend weeks there, they’d spend summers there,” Brown said.
Over time, the Forest Service decided to create more permanent lookouts and built towers and cabins.
“The lookouts have always been part of the fire world,” he said.
During the Cold War, lookouts were tasked with looking for Soviet aircraft, in addition to looking for fires.
However, with advancing technology, lookouts are used less and less frequently.
There are three lookouts on the Helena National Forest that could be staffed — the Strawberry Butte Lookout, located south of Helena outside Montana City; the Stonewall Mountain Lookout, near Lincoln; and the Hogback Mountain Lookout near York. None is staffed this summer, said Kathy Bushnell, spokeswoman for the Helena National Forest.
Lookouts are staffed based on budgets and fire danger. Backcountry lookouts generally get a higher priority for staffing than the front country lookouts located on the Helena National Forest.
At one time there were more than 600 fire lookouts in Montana. Now that number has dwindled to 130, only about 40 of which are staffed.
As the lookouts became unused, many fell into disrepair and were torn down, said Debbie Anderson, of the Montana Discovery Foundation, an organization that works to involve citizens in conserving and enhancing natural resources within the Helena National Forest.
“There are not that many left on the forest,” she said. “They’re using lookouts less and less.”
Volunteers currently are working to preserve the Granite Butte Lookout, near Lincoln, so it can be available to rent through the Forest Service’s recreation rental program.
In the early days of lookout towers, it was Forest Service policy to have fires out by 10 a.m. the day after they started, Brown explained, so it was important to have people looking for fires. As fire ecology became better understood, fires were allowed to burn longer. Technology also has lessened the need for manned lookouts.
“Then helicopters came along, airplanes came along and GPS came along,” Brown said. “That’s why you don’t see the lookouts like you used to.”
But lookouts still have a role to play.
“They can’t fly in a thunderstorm, but I can be up here in a thunderstorm and look for lightning strikes,” he said.
Many fire lookout positions now are volunteer, rather than paid. Sometimes injured fire fighters also fill in as lookouts. Brown now works as the office manager for the Helena National Forest and trains fire lookouts, but he would be happy to give up his office job and go back to work in a remote tower.
“It’s just really wonderful to be a part of that history,” Brown said. “I’m ready to quit my job and go right back to it.”
Brown got his start in the Forest Service as a wild-lands fire fighter in the 1970s. One year he decided he wanted to see what it was like to work as a fire lookout instead.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
Brown’s first stint as a lookout was in 1984 at the Silver King Mountain Lookout on the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness. Unlike the Strawberry Butte Lookout, which is accessible by road, reaching the Silver King Lookout requires a seven-mile hike.
Brown frequently gets visitors at Strawberry Butte and is happy to show them around. At Silver King, he had three visits all summer — his fiance and her parents, a friend and one hiker who was passing through.
“That was pretty remote,” he said.
Once while manning the Silver King Lookout, the structure was struck by lightning.
“It’s hard to describe except to say you know it’s going to happen before it does,” Brown said.
Everything got very quiet and then there was a huge crash.
Brown read four or five books a week at Silver King. He continues to read, draw, study maps and re-finish cross-cut saws at the Strawberry Butte Lookout.
“You have to figure out a way to stay busy because otherwise you’d go crazy,” he said.
Brown also took two of his dogs with him to Strawberry, which was a big help in keeping him from going crazy.
Brown does get lonely at times being a fire lookout, but it’s also hard to adjust to civilization and seeing people every day after a summer of solitude.
“It takes a special person to do it,” Brown said. “You have to be really comfortable with yourself and you have to be comfortable being alone and not lonely.”
Brown says the best job in the world is being a smoke jumper, which he spent two years doing. Working as a fire lookout is the second best job. There’s a certain mystique that goes along with position. People tend to conjure up images of Edward Abbey sitting in a lookout tower writing “Desert Solitaire” or “Black Sun.”
“You get to live a romantic life,” Brown said.
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