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Lookout repair

Volunteers from the Forest Fire Lookout Association and the Forest Service cooperated to restore the Big Butte Lookout in Washington's Blue Mountains this summer. 

BIG BUTTE, Wash. — During a break from the hard work of pulling nails, painting boards and healthy applications of elbow grease, the talk here naturally turns to lookouts.

Rod Fosback of Colville, Wash., and Dick Gilman of Clarkston, Wash., exchange notes on the ones they have visited over the years. Both men, members of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, have made the hike into Grave’s Peak in the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness Area, but only Gilman was able to lay eyes on the iconic Wylie’s Peak Lookout before a lightning bolt destroyed it in 1983.

“I would have loved to see it,” Fosback said.

The structures that were once scattered throughout national forests of the West are slowly disappearing from the landscape. The ones not still in use are falling into disrepair and are vulnerable not only to the elements but also to wildfire.

Gilman and Fosback were at Big Butte near Anatone, Wash., in the Blue Mountains to make sure the ailing lookout cab here doesn’t fade into history.

Along with about a dozen other volunteers and a handful of Forest Service employees, they recently spent three days stabilizing and restoring the cab.

Built in 1956, the lookout was on an 80-foot-tall tower and was used to spot wildfires until the early 1990s. It’s been largely abandoned since then, though it was occasionally called into emergency use during busy fire seasons.

About three years ago a tree fell on one of the cables used to anchor the tower. It twisted and one of the legs kicked out making it unstable and vulnerable to collapse.

“It stayed that way for two years,” said Jill Bassett, an archeologist on the Pomeroy Ranger District of the Umatilla National Forest.

Last year she was able to secure a small grant from the lookout association to begin a restoration project. A crane was used to lower the cab to the ground and the tower was disassembled. Then the volunteers began the cab restoration project.

“I’m glad they are fixing this old lookout up,” said Bill Ingram of Clarkston.

The retired maintenance man for the Pomeroy Ranger District is no stranger to Big Butte. During his career he visited often. He recalled fondly standing on the top of the lookout in the 1970s during a re-roofing project. He also lived in the cab for a short time when he was recruited to serve as a lookout during an active fire season.

“I spent a month and a half up here,” said the 80-year-old. “They didn’t know anybody to put up here that knew the country.”

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Charlie Heebner also served a short stint in the lookout. He and his wife, Beverly, used to staff the lookout at Oregon Butte in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area. He was sent to Big Butte for a few days of emergency duty. The couple from Olympia also staff Cache Creek Ranch in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area for a month or so each spring and have volunteered on a number of projects on the Umatilla Forest.

“Everybody is working together good and having a good time and getting a lot done,” Beverly Heebner said.

Many retired lookout towers and guard stations are being converted into cabins that people can rent for a few days. 

“People just have a fantastic experience when they get to stay in one of them,” Fosback said.

Pat Threewit of Kooskia, Idaho, enjoys visiting lookouts and staying in the ones for rent. He and his wife rented the one at Lookout Butte on the Clearwater Forest.

“My wife loved it because she could see the sunrise and the sunset,” he said. “It’s worth it.”

Bassett said it’s possible Big Butte could enter the agency’s rental program after it is restored. Long-term plans call for the tower to be rebuilt and for the cab to be placed on top of it.

“I think if people use it, that would be great. That is what it needs, to be in use.”

She said if the lookout enters the rental program, it probably won’t be raised to its former elevation above the tree tops.

Even up in the Blues the temperature reached into the high 90s during the work. But Fosback said restoring the structure to its former glory is well worth the sweat.

“They are worth saving,” he said. “Several people just love lookouts and would hate to see them go away. It’s hard to imagine the forest without them.”

For more information on fire lookouts or the Forest Fire Lookout Association, visit www.firelookout.org.

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