“Lookout” below from 50 years ago; early fire detection revisited

Lin Thrune-Makela demonstrates how to use a fire finder. Photo: DNR
Lin Thrune-Makela demonstrates how to use a fire finder. Photo: DNR

Fire lookouts may largely be a thing of the past. Yet, a recent visit up Pinnacle Peak, the past site of a 60-foot tower near Buckley, Washington, with a former DNR lookout made the height of their use seem like yesterday.

In the past, lookouts were our first defense against wildfire. Lin Thrune-Makela gave up two of her summers, in 1963 and 1964, to perform lookout duty atop the Pinnacle Peak (then known as Mount Peak) more than 50 years ago. From the tower, Lin spent every waking moment watching over the greater Enumclaw area in her efforts to detect forest fires. She would be there for several months at a time, with her food and supplies delivered.

DNR’s Enumclaw office staffed four towers back then, the one Lin was in and three more. When she spotted smoke, Lin would use a fire finder to take measurements. If other nearby tower lookouts a fire in the same location the local communications center would use triangulation to find the forest fire. It was a highly functional technique for the times.

Hiking nearly a mile and revisiting the site with Lin was something like flashing back in time. From her seat atop of the peak, she noticed many more visitors today. Back in the 60s, the visitors who hiked up to learn about what she was doing helped her to feel like part of the local community, even from her tower high in the sky.

Sure, there were some frightening moments. Lin recalls some scary nights when lightning storms lit up everything, “It was like you were inside a florescent lightbulb.”

Lin had a lightning stool to stand on during storms that would help protect her from being shocked. The stool was made of wood with glass legs, as both wood and glass are poor conductors of electricity.

Or, when wildlife came knocking on her door. (Which turned out to be a black bear who didn’t so much knock, as shake the tower by its guide wires.)

“It literally felt like an earthquake,” Lin reminisced.

She was spooked at times, but her dog was always by her side to keep her company and she knew she could shoot from the hip with her .22 caliber revolver.

Lin had sought the job in the first place because she thought it would be exciting. Plus, it let her save money for college. The $200 per month that she earned helped her to graduate from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She has fond memories of her long months in that tower. Today, memories are about all that remain.

DNR had hoped to preserve the tower, but damage cause by vandals required its

A miniature replica of the Pinnacle Peak Fire Lookout in DNR's Enumclaw Office. Photo: DNR
A miniature replica of the Pinnacle Peak Fire Lookout in DNR’s Enumclaw Office. Photo: DNR

removal to prevent serious injury. Yet, we have some good news – a miniature replica of the tower can be visited in the reception area of DNR’s Enumclaw office, 950 Farman Ave. N. The office is opened from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Today, firefighters mostly use aerial reconnaissance, satellite data and reports from citizens like you to find wildfires. Yet, fire towers around Washington state continue to exists, including one still used by DNR at Aeneas in Okanogan County. And, there’s growing interest around our country in restoring these structures. Enthusiasts of these past treasures even have their own association.