Perched at the edge of a 400-foot cliff, 7,753 feet above sea level, the Boulder Point lookout tower represents a largely bygone era where solitary types would scan the endless ridges of Bitterroot National Forest looking for a spark.
“Maybe four out of every 10 lighting strikes will pop up,” Rene Eustace, a former fire lookout coordinator for the West Fork Ranger District said. “You’re always looking up there. Your living quarters are your working space.”
The Boulder Point Lookout is an excellent example of the classic L-4 design lookout, which grew popular in the 1930s during a massive expansion of the lookout program. Built in 1937, Boulder Point is a 14-by-14-foot wood cabin with a pyramid-style roof situated on a 10 foot tall tower. The lookout stands in its original location, and retains most of the hallmarks of its original craftsmanship and architecture, which is why it’s been nominated to have a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
L-4 style lookouts were built mostly in the 1930s from a design created by Clyde Fickes, according to Mary Williams, a former Bitterroot National Forest historian.
“They represent a distinct style of architecture,” Williams said. “They were prefabricated in Spokane then packed up the mountainside in crates carried by mules. Those crates were actually incorporated into the design.”
The lookouts were designed with the idea that anyone who could operate a hammer, a level and a saw could put them together, according to Matthew Werle, who filled Williams’ position after she retired.
Bitterroot National Forest has initiated the process of listing all of its surviving L-4 lookouts. Ultimately the decision to place them on the National Register of Historic places is up to the National Park Service’s keeper of the register in Washington, D.C.
On the Montana side of the border are Boulder Point, Medicine Point, St. Mary’s Peak, and Gird Point lookouts. On the Idaho side are the Salmon Mountain and Gardiner Peak lookouts.
Forest fire protection measures played a huge role in the history of the Forest Service. After the devastating fires of 1910, the agency invested heavily in the development of fire suppression policy, a major component of which was detection from fixed lookout points.
According to the National Historic Register’s nominating documents, the L-4 lookouts in Forest Service Region 1 are a physical reminder of the agency’s efforts to manage and protect the areas under its supervision from the devastating effects of wildfire.
Boulder Point Lookout was staffed from 1937 until the mid 1980s. Eustace, the fire lookout coordinator, never spent a season in Boulder Point Lookout, but he has worked from the other L-4 lookouts in the Bitterroot National Forest.
Eustace said he had dreamed of staffing a lighthouse in his childhood growing up around San Diego, California. After finishing his time in the Navy he moved to the Bitterroot, and realized that a fire lookout would be the next best thing.
In 1976, Eustace got his wish, and spent the summer staffing the Medicine Point Lookout.
“The natural phenomena are outrageous - sunrises and sunsets, the Milky Way at night, snowstorms in the middle of July,” Eustace said. “We’re always talking to each other over the radio from one lookout to another, ‘You know the Pleiades meteor shower is tonight,’ that kind of thing.”
For a fire lookout in training, the first job is to “learn the country” as Eustace put it. Lookouts start with a pair of binoculars and a topographic map, and learn all the known points, peaks and drainages, before practicing on more complicated tools.
Using an Osborne Firefinder, a special type of topographic map and sighting device called an alidade, lookouts learned how to pinpoint distant locations to relay fire start information to firefighters.
Between fire lookouts with different vantages and aerial support, crews could be extremely precise.
“I don’t think there is any substitute for people up in lookouts,” Eustace said. “But whether they’re staffed or not, I just don’t like them going away. During the late 60s they would pull the valuable materials like the copper out of the towers and then burn them down.”
The Boulder Peak Lookout is the oldest of the still-standing lookouts on the Bitterroot National Forest, according to Eustace. Salmon Mountain and Gardiner Mountain on the Idaho side of the forest still have an active lookout staff, as does St. Mary’s Peak.
“A neat thing to know is that while you’re physically alone up there, you are tied together in this incredible system of fighting fires,” Eustace said. “I was alone, but I really wasn’t. Radio reception was excellent too. I’d listen to the BBC live from London every morning while I ate my breakfast.”