Think you need a forestry degree to volunteer as a wildfire lookout? Think again. Today, there are more than 2,000 lookout towers in the nation, and anyone with a passion for volunteering and a little bit of basic training can staff one of these stations.
High above the surrounding forest, wildfire lookouts offer a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape, and an observation deck to soak it all in. Although lookouts are less popular today with the advent of new wildfire technology, they are still relied upon to help alert firefighters on the ground of potential wildfires and wildfire conditions.
The Importance of Wildfire Lookouts
Volunteers assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) by visually spotting and pinpointing fire occurrences, especially in remote areas where little monitoring exists.
In today’s digital world, over half of fire lookouts now rely on technology, but physical volunteers are still needed to help wildland firefighters respond to wildfires and keep nearby communities safe.
Lookout volunteers track weather patterns, keep a close eye on lightning, and assist the work of firefighters and other backcountry workers. Acting as a fire lookout requires vigilance, perseverance, and a deep love for tranquility and long stretches of solitude. Fire lookouts come with a rare opportunity to experience wildlife without any human-generated sounds or lights, and affords the ability to slowly adjust to a life outside the city limits and begin learning to pick up on the sounds of the natural world that surround you.
A Day in the Life of a Wildfire Lookout
Lookout jobs are often posted by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. Postings often begin in December and run through the springtime. Lookouts are small towers with modest living spaces and large windows in every direction.
Lookout shifts may last from 10am to 6pm, or from daybreak to sunset. This may depend on the relative potential fire danger in the area, and the particular lookout you are staffing. Many lookouts require long stints of service where you may be commissioned to live in a remote location for days, weeks, or even months at a time. These hilltop cabins are not stocked, and require you to pack in your own food, water, and toiletries. Some jobs pay a modest salary in return for these long hours of watchful monitoring.
The job itself is fairly straightforward: keep an eye on the forest around you, withstand—and enjoy—the peacefulness and solitude of your remote post, report on daily weather patterns and any changes in fire conditions, and keep an eye out for any new fires. This requires some training on weather instruments, compasses, and other methods of pinpointing the location of a fire.
As a wildfire lookout, there are few of the common constraints analogous to a city lifestyle. No commuting, no alarms, no shopping, and no bustling crowds. Wildfire lookout points are purposefully distant, elevated, and isolated, even from the forest they are stationed to protect.
How to Get Started
To get started volunteering, contact the fire protection agency in your state, or the US Forest Service or National Parks Service, FireLookout.org, or USAJobs.org.
Fire lookout positions have long been sought out for their ability to reunite us with nature. In fact, famous author Jack Kerouac enjoyed time acting as a fire lookout in the North Cascades of Washington state in 1956. Volunteering as a fire lookout helps serve our forests and also keeps visitors safe during peak fire season. And for those who enjoy the solitude of nature, there is no better place than high up in a lookout overseeing the broad expanses of the nation’s natural landscape.