Inside Wyoming's Last Fire Lookouts

Sep 2, 2016

Cement Ridge
Credit Maggie Mullen

Fighting wildfires increasingly relies on new technology, like drones and a web program that traces every lightning strike in real time. But in the Black Hills of Northeastern Wyoming, the most basic technology is still relied on—the human eye.

Karen Maloy uses the Osborne Fire Finder at Warren Peak.
Credit Maggie Mullen

Warren Peak Lookout Tower is six miles Northwest of Sundance. It’s at 6,710 feet and it’s breezy. Karen Maloy is the lookout for Warren Peak. It’s her 11th season. She’s worked at towers across the country. Her first assignment was in college.

“I loved it!” Maloy says. “It was primitive, we had like two visitors all summer long, had my son, my pack of dogs. We hiked all the time. I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

But finding tower jobs isn’t as easy as it once was. Wyoming used to have more than 12 active towers. Now there are 3, two of which are in the Black Hills National Forest. The main reason for the drop is because of changes in technology. But that technology can be expensive and is not always reliable. But humans, on the other hand, are still an accurate and direct way to detect fires.

Barb Peterson at Cement Ridge.
Credit Maggie Mullen

Barb Peterson says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Peterson is Karen Maloy’s neighbor. She operates Cement Ridge Lookout, which is just East of Warren Peak Lookout. She and Maloy work at least 5 days a week at their towers, more if there are active fires. The tools the use are simple – binoculars, spotting scopes, maps, and two way radios.

Peterson adds, “You do a lot of your lookout duties when you’re looking around at your terrain just with your natural eye.”

When they do spot smoke, they also use a tool called the Osborne Fire Finder. It, too, is not the most advanced technology. It was first developed in the 1920s, but it’s still quite accurate. Peterson say she can then relay to fire crews the location of the3 smoke within minutes of a fire starting.

But the job is about more than spotting fires. Weather in the Black Hills can change quickly and Maloy says sometimes it can be extreme.

Maloy recalls her first season at Warren Peak. “We had a red flag day, county was burning up, and I clocked sustained of 77 and gusts of 92. So nothing really phases me after that summer.”

The sweeping views from the tower give lookout staff a unique awareness of incoming weather. Depending on conditions, they collect weather data every hour. And that data isn’t just useful to fire crews. Loggers or archaeologists working in the area can’t always see severe weather rolling in, but Peterson says she can.

"All they have to do is tell me, Barb, I’m going to be working over here in Pole Cabin this afternoon, would you keep an eye on the weather for me? Yeah, absolutely, what kind of lead time do you need in order to get out?”

Maps at Warren Peak.
Credit Maggie Mullen

The Black Hills are also a popular tourist spot. Both Warren Peak and Cement Ridge Towers are accessible by gravel road and that means thousands of people come to see the views. Maloy says she often spends part of her day teaching visitors about the history of the area, almost like a park ranger.

Maloy says, “You get to meet so many cool people. I try to get folks to sign my register, I tell them no one ever looks at it but me. I’ve had people from England up this summer. I had a girl from Tibet here one summer.”

But when there aren’t any visitors, the wind has died down, and staff is caught up on lookout duties, it’s quiet. Peterson says that’s partly what attracted her to the job.

“I really like solitude. I like peace and quiet. I like being in the outdoors and just listening to what’s happening and usually there’s not much going, but every once in a while you’ll hear a bird squawk, or a coyote,” says Peterson.

Maloy says the job is sometimes stressful, but not always.

She adds, “It’s peaceful. I’m on top of the world, I have the best office in the world.”

For now, the towers are staffed. Cement Ridge just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its finished construction, but as technology continues to evolve, the towers may not be here 75 years from now.