Loss of fire lookouts raises questions about historic preservation

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Loss of fire lookouts raises questions about historic preservation

For decades, fire observation towers have served as a bridge between the human eye and the surrounding landscape. From the heights of the mountains, hikers, observers and naturalists have been able to observe the breathtaking, if not inaccessible, sites to which watchtowers provide access – gaze at glaciers and vast mountain ranges, feel new gusts wind and find comfort in the solitude offered by gazebos. However, as wildfires and lack of maintenance threaten fire watchers across the United States, these touchpoints are quickly disappearing, taking with them a rich history of the American environmental imagination.

Highpoint Observation Point, located on Mount Palomar. Credit: Creative Commons

Fire watchtowers have a long relationship with the land they were originally built to protect. The first American towers, managed by independent lookouts, predate the US Forest Service, created in 1905. At the time, there were already dozens of fire watches dotting the United States; during their heyday, the US Forest Service managed over 8,000 manned fire watch towers in 49 states. Now there is only 300 who are still actively occupied. Many offer unique views of breathtaking landscapes, such as Sahara Glacier in the desert of Glacier Peak.

Forest fire watch posts first served as crucial outposts for the men and women who watched forest fires, as they spent long hours and months staring at the horizon, looking at the horizon. looking for smoke or other signs that may indicate a dangerous fire. Work was and remains solitary work; the lookouts live in solitude in the tower, often without access to running water or electricity. At the beginning of the 20th century, wives of forest guards often served as fire watchers, as prejudices against women working in the forest land precluded them from assuming any other role in the Forest Service.

Black and white photo of a woman standing in front of a shed

Hallie M. Daggett, seen here in front of Eddy Gulsh’s observation post, was the first woman employed by the Forest Service and served as a fire watchman. Source: United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service

Forest fire watchers acquired an almost mythological presence in the American naturalistic tradition, in large part due to the many poets who featured fire watchers in their work in the mid-20th century. Gary Snyder, a decorated American writer and renowned poet whose work often focuses on environmental conservation themes, has spent time monitoring the fires Crater mountain in 1952. Shortly after his first stay, Snyder recruited fellow poet Philip Whalen to take up a post at a nearby fire watchman, and a few years later the two convinced Jack Kerouac to manage Desolation Peak, which features in the novels of Kerouac. Angels of Desolation and Dharma tramps. Whalen, Kerouac, and Snyder wove lookouts into the literary history of the American landscape, with Snyder writing in his poem “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” to contemplate “in the valley a haze of smoke / three days of heat, after five days of rain”.

Mountains and a blue sky seen from a peak

San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Kendrick Mountain Fire Observation Deck. Credit: Creative Commons

These ancient staples of American landscapes are now threatened with rapid extinction. Decades after their heyday, fire watchtowers occupy a precarious position between use and extinction. Their usefulness has largely faded, although some are still active and occupied by devoted lookouts which carry on the tradition of solitary observation. But new technological instruments, including satellites, cameras and drones, now monitor fires with far greater accuracy and speed than the human eye can reproduce. And although their romantic allure still captivates many, some fire-watching towers are now popular destinations for hikers to explore. to rent as unique vacation spots– they also serve as a physical reminder of America’s faulty relationship with fire management.

In September, one of Oregon’s most historic towers – the Bull of the Woods Lookout, located in the Mount Hood National Forest –burnt to the ground, despite plans to attempt to preserve the gazebo by protecting it with fire-resistant material. Last summer, Slater’s devastating fire made Bolan mountain lookout in southern Oregon, while the still active Scott Mountain Lookout burned down in the Archie Creek fire.

Before European colonization, fire was an integral part of the life cycle of a landscape. Indigenous peoples used prescribed burning as a crucial part of their relationship to the land. Fires that occurred without human action, such as those caused by lightning, were also allowed to burn without intervention. European settlers began a practice of fire suppression and banned Native burning practices. Forest fires have become rarer, but they have also increased in size, which has subsequently led to an increasingly intense fire-containment strategy. Fire watch posts have been erected and staffed as part of the new forest service fire management strategy: extinguish all fires as quickly and completely as possible.

Despite the efforts of the Forest Service, the fires continued to increase in size and frequency. It was not until the 1970s, when scientific research emerged confirming the benefits of forest fires for a forest’s ecology, that the Forest Service began to re-evaluate its approach to forest fire management. . Since then, the Service has attempted to change its approach. Recently, prescribed burning associations launched a collaborative effort with indigenous peoples to facilitate controlled burning and allow tribes to reclaim this practice.

Smoke on the mountainside with pines

A prescribed burn at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in April 2020. Credit: National Park Service / Jim Johnson

So what to do with the hundreds of fire watchers, left unmanned, now standing without active use? Inspired by the emotional value they hold in American environmental memory, groups across the United States like the Forest fire monitoring association have emerged to advocate for fire monitoring as sites worthy of a place on the National Register of Historic Places. So far there are a total of twenty-two rounds on the list.

Listing in the National Register of Historic Places recognizes the cultural and historical importance of fire watch stations, but does not guarantee their preservation. In an interview with GlacierHub, Erica Avrami, professor of historic preservation at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, explained, “Listing on the National Registry does not in itself protect a site from demolition or destruction. from neglect, long-term maintenance. Different levels and branches of government may designate a “historic” place in different ways, some of which offer more regulatory protection than others. But many of these processes involve community-initiated research and documentation, which in turn can mobilize interest and resources for their preservation. “

Marcy Rockman, who served with the US National Park Service as the first climate change adaptation coordinator for cultural resources, wrote that the criteria of the National Register authorize the nominations of places whose importance relates to contemporary problems, such as climate change. Running National Park Service Policy recommends recognizing the importance of places that can help contemporary society understand how climate change phenomena have arisen, which would include the extent and nature of forest fires. “For me,” said Rockman, “that’s an argument to preserve at least a few watchtowers. But how, how many and which, of course, would still need to be determined.”

Shaping the future of fire watch towers means considering not only what made them historic, but also what they represent in the history of firefighting in the United States. Although they served a generation of poets, fire watch towers have also hampered decades of effective fire management, allowing for the rapid increase in wildfires and destruction over the past twenty years. In 2020, 58,950 forest fires burned a total of 10.1 million acres of land – the second highest amount of land burned in a year in the United States since 1960. Unless fires are managed, fire observation towers like the Bull of the Woods lookout will continue to burn, making them one more feature to disappear amid the ongoing climate crisis. But hope for the towers remains; changing attitudes towards fire management means that fire watchers could continue to serve, as they have for decades, powerful reminders of the vast mountain landscapes and their ability to spark the human imagination in the world. future.



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