Fire Lookouts

Carter Dome lookout tower under construction, New Hampshire, 1925 (R9_195554). Fire lookout tower, North Carolina, 1916 (FHS3599). Open Pond lookout tower, Conecuh National Forest, Alabama, 1940 (FHS3564).

Following the devastating fires of 1910, early fire detection became a priority within the Forest Service. To help aid detection, lookout towers began to be built on national forests throughout the country. These building efforts were further aided during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who worked on numerous lookout building projects across the nation.

The fire detection process was also aided over the years by an invention developed by USFS forester William Bushnell Osborne, Jr. Osborne first invented a "firefinder" in Oregon in 1911 using a rotating steel disc with attached sighting mechanisms. This instrument allowed lookouts to accurately pinpoint the geographic location of forest fires by sighting distant smoke through the device. Further modifications and technological developments were made by Osborne to the firefinder over the next 30 years. The Osborne Firefinder was widely used by Forest Service lookouts throughout the 20th century, and production of the devices by various companies continues even today.

Image of Helen Dowe at the Devil's Head Fire Lookout, 1919.
Helen Dowe at the Devil's Head Fire Lookout, Pike National Forest, Colorado, 1919.

Selected Resources:

"Hallie M. Daggett: Early Woman Lookout," USFS History Line, Fall 1999.
(In 1913, Hallie Daggett became the first female fire lookout in the Forest Service. She spent 15 years on the job, working at the Eddy Gulch fire tower on the Klamath National Forest.)

"The Lookout Cookbook," issued June 1, 1938.

"Lookouts," a selection from A History of the Architecture of the USDA Forest Service.

Browse historic images from the following FHS online photo galleries:
Fire Detection - Lookout Towers
Fire Detection - Fire Finding Equipment
Fire Detection - General

Image of Raymond Thompson, Fire Guard at Brule Tower, sighting on fire with fire finder, 1950.
Raymond Thompson, fire guard at Brule Tower in Minnesota, using fire finder, 1950.

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Updated: 10/25/2013