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Holding on to historic towers: Appreciation grows for fire lookouts

  • 6 min to read

CEMENT RIDGE, Wyo. | Barb Peterson is ideally suited to her job as a fire spotter in the Black Hills National Forest.

She likes solitude, which is good, because she spends her days at an elevation of 6,647 feet, pacing a catwalk around a rustic-looking tower and scanning forested hilltops and ridge lines for smoke. 

She enjoys company, too, which is also good, because she counted 1,600 public visits in July from curious motorists, ATVers and hikers, despite the relatively remote location of the Cement Ridge fire lookout tower. It's in the northwestern Black Hills, about 20 miles southwest of Spearfish via gravel roads and just across the Wyoming line.

Peterson has been a "lookout," as her position is known, for eight years since retiring from an accounting career, and she loves the simplicity of looking for smoke, talking to visitors and enjoying nature.

“To me, it’s a coveted position,” she said. “People say, ‘I want this job,’ and I say, ‘Stand in line.’ I’m not ready to give it up.”

The Cement Ridge tower, which turns 75 years old this year, is one of seven fire lookout towers still being used in the Black Hills. There were about 25 active towers in the region, but many were deactivated as advances in technology — including aerial surveillance and automated lightning-strike detection — made forest managers less reliant on human lookouts. 

The 25 tower sites in the Black Hills now range from the stone ruins of long-ago deactivated towers to the well-preserved, wood-and-stone or metal structures of active towers. Some of the tower sites are situated along roads, and others require a hike; some are open to the public, and others are restricted. The most well-known Black Hills lookout tower is the stone structure atop Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), which is no longer used for smoke detection but is visited by thousands of hikers annually.

Towers trending downward

The decline of lookout towers in the Black Hills has paralleled a national trend. The Forest Fire Lookout Association reports that among nearly 9,000 lookout towers that once stood across the nation, fewer than 3,000 are still standing and fewer than 1,000 are staffed.

But the disappearance of the towers may be slowing as people nationwide, and especially in the West, take action to preserve and protect lookout towers for their continued usefulness, unique architecture, history and scenic vistas.

In some places, unused lookout towers have been re-purposed as rental cabins. That has not yet happened in the Black Hills, where forest managers seem more focused on preserving active lookout towers in part by keeping them staffed with human lookouts.

Chris Huhnerkoch, assistant fire management officer for the Bearlodge Ranger District, said the Black Hills National Forest uses surveillance flights and other modern technology to find fires. But technology is expensive and sometimes fails, and it's comforting to know there are people in towers ready to report smoke within minutes of a fire starting.

Additionally, lookouts provide weather reports and serve as human repeaters for Forest Service personnel who might be out of radio range of each other, but within range of a lofty lookout tower.

“It’s pretty handy having them up here for safety, weather and communication, aside from the primary smoke detection job,” Huhnerkoch said, adding that he hopes to have people in lookout towers “as long as possible, as long as I’m here."

Low-tech, but highly effective

The Cement Ridge tower stands 15 feet tall, with a stone-constructed base. Inside the base is an empty room that’s open year-round and is a popular warming spot for snowmobile riders.

Atop the tower is a 14-by-14-foot wooden, window-lined room, or cab, with a wraparound catwalk. A stroll around the catwalk affords a panoramic view of the northern Black Hills and the surrounding area, with visible landmarks including Terry Peak, Custer Peak, Crow Peak, Inyan Kara Mountain, Warren Peak and Sundance Mountain. On crystal-clear days, Peterson said, she can see the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming about 150 miles to the west.

Inside the cab is a mix of old and new technology, all surrounding a device known as an Osborne Firefinder.

The Osborne Firefinder was invented during the winter of 1910-1911 by William B. Osborne, a Forest Service employee in Oregon. The device consists of a circular map mounted on a rotating steel disc atop a pedestal, with brass sighting mechanisms.

When Peterson spots smoke from the Cement Ridge tower, she lines up the smoke in the firefinder sight, and then takes readings from the sights and the map that help determine the approximate location of the smoke. If human lookouts in other towers see the same smoke, they can communicate by radio and help pinpoint the location by means of triangulation with strings and tacks on wall maps.

Lookouts have some modern technology, including radios and cell phones, but some towers are still very rustic. The Cement Ridge tower is powered by solar energy, and Peterson’s work still revolves around a pair of binoculars and the Osborne Firefinder that is basically the same device, with some updates, that was used by lookouts more than 100 years ago.

“It still works today, and that’s the most important thing,” Peterson said. “It’s tried and true technology, it’s been used for decades. My philosophy is if it isn't broke, don’t fix it.”


Barb Peterson demonstrates how an Osborne Firefinder is used when determining where a fire is burning. The device was invented around 1910 and is still a vital tool today.

Tower uses evolve

The value of fire lookout towers and human lookouts extends beyond smoke-detection, according to Michael Engelhart, North Zone archaeologist for the Black Hills National Forest. Lookout towers are architecturally and historically significant, they offer spectacular views, and the act of getting to a remote tower offers a recreational opportunity.

“It’s kind of that nexus of utility and history and getting out and seeing the woods, all at the same time,” Engelhart said. “I think that’s why we get a lot of visitors.”

Peterson’s presence in the tower, and the presence of other lookouts in other towers, helps to protect and promote those multiple uses. Her presence deters vandals, and she does some upkeep on the tower during her downtime. And when people come to visit, as long as she’s not busy calling in or monitoring a fire, she acts as a kind of docent, telling visitors about her duties and about the history of fire lookouts.

The proliferation of fire lookouts was related to the so-called Big Blowup of 1910, when an estimated 1,736 fires swept across the West and burned 3 million acres while destroying 7.5 billion board feet of timber, wiping out several small towns and killing at least 85 people.

After those fires, lookout towers began popping up around the country as land managers sought to spot and respond to fires before they raged out of control. At Cement Ridge, a log cabin was built in 1911. A crow’s nest was added in 1921, but it and the cabin were replaced by a tower that was finished in 1941.

People hired as lookouts in the early days had to be adventurous and comfortable with isolation and danger. Some lookouts lived in towers for days on end, and at Cement Ridge there was a horse stable and a rock cellar for provisions. Printed guidebooks advised lookouts how to avoid being electrocuted by a lightning strike.

Cement Ridge was remote enough that no motorized vehicles reached it until 1927, when a ranger named Tom Sawyer drove his car to the top with his wife and young son inside. He reportedly cleared a path as he went, and when he got out of the car to clear rocks or branches out of the way, he stuck a sack of potatoes behind one of the car's wheels to prevent it from rolling downhill.

The tower that was built atop Cement Ridge in 1941 is the one that still stands, and it was added to the National Historic Lookout Register in 1993. The tower’s 75th anniversary this year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which has done much to encourage the preservation of lookout towers and other historic structures all over the country. 

Keith Argow, chairman of the board of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, said historic preservation efforts are needed to prevent the disappearance of towers that help tell the history of forestry.

"They are a symbol of forestry in America going back 100 years," Argow said. "They're almost as important a symbol of responsible fire management as Smokey Bear."

Cement Ridge fire lookout

The original Cement Ridge fire lookout was built between 1911 and 1913. At that time it was a one-room log cabin with a shingle roof. In 1921, a crow’s nest with a glassed-in house was constructed. A new lookout was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and finished in 1941. 

'Part of our identity'

Concern about the decline of lookout towers has motivated many people across the country to donate money, volunteer time, or buy lookout towers in order to preserve them, said Gary Weber, the Idaho-based treasurer for the national Forest Fire Lookout Association.

In eastern states, where lookout towers were typically less remote and the job of a lookout was less demanding, there seems to be less nostalgia for the towers, Weber said. But in the West, there is an active community of people committed to preserving the towers, even as remote controlled cameras and other technological replacements for human lookouts continue to cause more towers to be deactivated.

"I think there is more and more recognition that this is something that's fading off the landscape, and it will continue to fade if we don't do something," Weber said.

Peterson is doing her part at Cement Ridge. She drives 17 miles to the tower five or six days a week during the fire season, which typically spans from May to September. Her days range from eight to 12 hours, depending on fire activity.

In keeping with the historic nature of her role and her work site, she drives a 1978 pickup, which is stuffed with extra clothing and food and whatever else she might need in case of an extra long day or unpredictable weather. Atop the tower, between visits from the public, she sometimes thinks about her predecessors and about lookouts in more remote towers across the country, and she’s jealous of lookouts then and now who've ventured deeper into the wilderness.

Her longing for the wilderness helps explain the lasting appeal of lookout towers. They are reminiscent of a time when nature was more natural, solitude could still be found and life was uncomplicated by digital technology.

Visiting a place like Cement Ridge is one of the few modern ways to experience that bygone era, or at least something like it.

“It’s hard to overtly recognize it sometimes in ourselves, but we really seek out connections to the past, and I think that’s part of the reason people come up here,” Engelhart said. “It’s part of our identity, really, in the Western forests.”

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