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Fire lookout tower

A fire lookout tower, fire tower or lookout tower, provides housing and protection for a person known as a "fire lookout" whose duty it is to search for fire in the wilderness. The fire lookout tower is a small building usually located on the summit of a mountain, or other high vantage point in order to maximize the viewing distance and range, known as view shed. From this vantage point the fire lookout can see any trace of smoke that may develop, determine the location by using a device known as an Osborne Fire Finder, and call fire suppression personnel to the fire.

The typical fire lookout tower consists of a small room, known as a cab located atop a large steel, or wooden tower, however sometimes natural rock may be used to create a lower platform. In some cases, the terrain makes it possible so there is no need for an additional tower and these are known as ground cabs. Ground cabs are called towers even if they don't have a tower to sit upon.

Although many fire lookout have fallen into disuse as a result of neglect, abandonment, and declining budgets, some fire service personnel have made an effort to preserve older fire towers, arguing that a good set of human eyes watching the forest for wildfire can be an effective and cheap fire safety measure.



The history of fire lookout towers predates the United States Forest Service (which was founded in 1905). Many townships, private lumber companies, and State Foresty organizations operated fire lookout towers on their own accord.

The “Great Fire of 1910”, also known as “The Big Blowup”, burned 3 million acres (12000 km²) through the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana. It is still argued to be the largest forest fire ever during recorded history. The smoke from this fire drifted across the entire country to Washington D.C. - both physically and politically - and it challenged the 5 year old Forest Service to address new policies regarding fire suppression, and the fire did much to create the fire rules, organizations, and policies that we have today. One of the rules as a result of the 1910 fire stated “all fires must be extinguished by 10 AM the following morning”.

To prevent and suppress fires, the U.S. Forest Service made another rule that townships, corporations and States would bear the cost of contracting fire suppression services, because at the time there was not the large Forest Service Fire Department that exists today.

As a result of the above rules, early fire detection and suppression became a priority. Towers would be built across the country. In 1933, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the “Civilian Conservation Corps” consisting of young men and veterans of World War One. It was during this time that the CCC set about building fire lookout towers, and access roads to those towers. By the late 1930’s there were about 8,000 towers in the United States.

The golden age of fire lookout towers was from 1930 through 1950. During World War II fire lookouts were assigned additional duty as Enemy Aircraft Spotters, especially on the West Coast of the United States.

From the 1960’s through the 1990’s the towers took a back seat to new technology, aircraft, and improvements in radios. The promise of space satellite fire detection and modern cell phones tried to compete with the remaining fire lookout towers but in several environments, the technology failed.

Fires detected from space are already too large to make accurate assessments for control. Cell phones in wilderness areas still suffer from lack of signal. Today, some fire lookout towers remain "in service" because having human eyes being able to detect smoke, and call in the fire, allows fire management officials to decide early how the fire is to be managed. The more modern policy is to "manage fire", not simply to suppress it. Fire lookout towers provide a reduction in time of fire detection to time of fire management assessment.


During the Edo period in Japan housed the . Usually the fire lookout tower was built near a , and was equipped with a ladder, lookout platform, and an . From these towers watchmen could observe the entire town, and in the event of a fire they would ring the alarm bell, calling up firemen and warning town residents. In some towns the bells were also used to mark the time.

While the fire lookout towers remained fully equipped into the Showa period, they were latter replaced by telephone and radio broadcasting systems in many cities.

Modern fire lookout towers

Today hundreds of towers are still in service with paid-staff and/or volunteer citizens. In some areas, the fire lookout operator often receives hundreds of forest visitors during a weekend and provides a needed “pre-fire suppression” message, supported by handouts from the "Smokey Bear", or "Woodsy Owl" education campaigns. This educational information is often distributed to young hikers that make their way up to the fire lookout tower. In this aspect, the towers are remote way stations and interpretive centers. The fire lookout tower also acts as a sentinel in the forest attracting lost or injured hikers, that make their way to the tower knowing they can get help.

In some locations around the country, fire lookout towers can be rented by public visitors that obtain a permit. These locations provide a unique experience for the camper, and in some rental locations, the check out time is enforced when the fire lookout operator returns for duty, and takes over the cab for the day shift.

Fire lookout towers are an important part of American history and several organizations have been founded to save, rebuild, restore, and operate fire lookout towers.

Types of fire lookout towers

Wooden towers

Many fire lookout towers are simply cabs that have been fitted to large railroad water tank towers. These huge wooden towers could extend 30 to 60 feet. One of the last wooden fire lookout towers in Southern California was the South Mount Hawkins Fire Lookout located in the Angeles National Forest. A civilian effort is underway to rebuild the tower after its tragic loss during the Curve Fire of September 2002.

The typical cab of a wooden tower can be from 10'x10' to 14'x14'.

Steel towers

Steel towers can vary in size and height. These towers are very sturdy but tend to sway in the wind a bit more than a wooden tower.

The typical cab of a steel tower can be from 10'x10' to 14'x14'.


Aermotors fire lookout towers have very small cabs because the towers are based upon the old Aermotor Windmill Towers. These cabs are often found in the Midwest or the South but few have made their way into the mountainous West. There are also a number of these towers in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

The typical cab of an Aermoter can be from 4'x4' (with a trap door on the bottom) to 8'x8'.

Ground cabs

Ground cabs are still known as "towers" even though there maybe no such tower under the cab. These towers can be one, two or three stories tall with foundations made of natural stone or cement. These towers vary greatly in size, but many are simple wooden or steel tower cabs that were constructed using the same plans, sans the tower.

Other types

There are many different types of lookouts. In the early days, the fire lookout operator would simply climb a denuded tree and would sit upon a 2'x2' platform chair atop that tree. An old fishing boat was once dragged to the top of a high hill and it was used as a fire lookout tower. Very little is known about the horse mounted fire lookout, but they too would ride the ridges patrolling the forest for smoke.


  • Tallest lookout tower in the world: Warren Bicentennial Tree Lookout, Australia - 225.7 feet (69 m).
  • Tallest all-steel lookout tower in the world: Beard Tower, 5 km (3 miles) SE of Manjimup, West Australia - 200 feet (61 m).
  • Tallest lookout tower in the U.S.: Woodworth Tower, Alexandria, Louisiana - 175 feet (53 m).
  • Highest lookout site in the world: Fairview Peak, 25 mile (40 km) NE of Gunnison, Colorado - 13,214 feet (4,028 m).
  • Lowest lookout sites in the world: Pine Island L.O., Florida & Evans Pines L.O., Florida - 2 feet (61 cm).
  • Earliest known fire lookout in the world: Mount Masada, west of the Dead Sea, in present-day Israel, approx. 2,000 years ago. It was built by King Herod's army in Palestine to protect against his enemies who were burning his empire.
  • U.S. state with the most known lookout sites: Idaho (989). 196 of them still exist, with roughly 60 staffed each summer.
  • Only U.S. state that has never had a lookout: Kansas.

Countries that still use fire lookout towers

  • USA
  • Canada (Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C.)
  • Mexico
  • Uruguay
  • Brazil
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Indonesia
  • France
  • Italy
  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Germany
  • Latvia
  • Israel
  • South Africa
  • Belgium

See also


  • Kresek, Ray Fire Lookouts of the Northwest (3rd ed.). Historic Lookout Project.
  • Spring, Ira; Fish, Byron Lookouts: Firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics (2nd ed.). Mountaineers Books.
  • The Lookout Network newsletter

External links

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