Museum Speaker Series Kicks Off With Talk on Northwest Montana’s Fire Lookouts

Amy Grisak will be presenting on the history of fire lookouts in northwest Montana on Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Northwest Montana History Museum

By Mike Kordenbrock
Apgar Lookout. Photo courtesy Amy Grisak

For about the last five years, Montana’s fire lookouts have maintained a towering presence in Amy Grisak’s mind.

The Great Falls-based outdoor writer and photographer said that her fascination with fire lookouts, and their history in the state, began when she picked up a book by David R. Butler called “Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park.”

The book stirred up memories of her own time living in the Flathead Valley community of Coram 16 years earlier, including when she had visited fire lookouts during her own hiking excursions. As she reconsidered those experiences, she also began to deepen her understanding of the complex role of the lookouts, which in her view function as both a wildfire detection and response tool, and backcountry touchstones that can serve as a point of education for visitors while simultaneously offering unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape. Still, the number of lookouts in the state has dropped off considerably over the years. There were once more than 600 lookouts in Montana, and now there are right around 150, according to Grisak.

On Jan. 15, Grisak will be presenting a talk at the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell about the history of fire lookouts in Northwest Montana. The event is first of four events in the museum’s 2023 John White Series, which will include a talk from Randy and Jim Mohn called “The Golden Age of Moviegoing in Kalispell,” a talk from local author John Fraley called “Writer Invites View into a Wilderness Life’” and a talk from marine archaeology photographer Kyren Zimmerman called “Diving Into Our Past.”

During her talk, Grisak plans to discuss fire suppression efforts in the state going back to the Big Burn of 1910, and its role in leading to the creation of a lookout system. As she discusses fire lookouts, and wildfires, Grisak will also share some of the personal stories she’s uncovered. The talk will include photos of lookouts, including ones that Grisak has visited.

As Grisak began her own journey years ago down the “rabbit hole” of the history of northwest Montana’s fire lookouts, which is in many cases closely intertwined with historic wildfires in the state, she discovered, with some frustration, that there was a surprising lack of documentation available about these structures.

Reviewing historic documents about the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Grisak said “it seems like they list every building in the wilderness except the lookouts, or most of them.”

“I’ve talked to real historians and they agree there’s just very little out there. But nonetheless there’s still a whole lot of fun to be had learning what we can through people’s experiences, either their fathers or grandfathers, or mothers or grandmothers, that have staffed these lookouts.” In some cases those stories entail descriptions of singular perspectives on wildfires from above the flames.

And, she added, visiting fire lookouts “is also a blast.”

Some of the treks can be grueling, with lookout trails sometimes amounting to “relentless switchbacks,” with “a tremendous amount of elevation” gain.

“But once you’re up there, you just forget it all,” Grisak said. “It’s just a 360-degree view. It’s absolutely spectacular.”

Grisak said that fire lookouts continue to have a functional purpose, and that experienced fire spotters can detect very subtle changes to their view that could indicate a potential hazard like a smoldering tree. She also said that the cost to staff a fire lookout can pale in comparison to what can be spent on getting aerial views of a fire location.

Grisak is currently a media freelancer who co-hosts the radio program Front Range Outdoors, but she previously spent about a decade working on natural history programs for media companies including National Geographic and the BBC, beginning as “basically a pack mule,” she said, before working her way up to associate producer. Over that span, she said she specialized in projects about grizzly bears and mountain lions.

She’s also authored two books. The first is “Found Photos of Yellowstone: Yellowstone’s History in Tourist and Employee Photos,” which includes hundreds of photographs made by visitors to the park, and employees from 1880 to 1940. The book is a collaborative effort between Grisak, Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey, and photographer Michael Francis. Grisak is also the author of Falcon Guides’ “Nature Guide to Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks” as part of the guide book company’s “Nature Guides to National Parks Series.”  

While Grisak is looking forward to presenting, she said she’s also excited to meet fellow members of the Northwest Montana Lookout Association in attendance. She said she’s never met other members in person, but has become Facebook friends with several. It’s a group she says has put in lots of hours volunteering their time to restore and preserve historic fire lookouts. Ideally, her talk can inspire others to join the effort.

“I hope once more people know more about the lookouts, and a little bit about their history, they’re going to help us protect them, too.”

For more information on this event and the rest of the speaker series, including on how to purchase tickets, go to nwmthistory.org.