The Bitterroot National Forest doesn’t have enough fire fighting money to staff all its fire lookouts this summer. Three lookouts that were staffed last summer will be closed this fire season. And so far, fire indices point to a season similar to 2000, when fire burned more than 350,000 acres on the forest.
Assistant Fire Management Officer Rick Floch, who works at BNF headquarters in Hamilton, said fire managers had to make decisions about which lookouts to staff and which to leave empty once it became clear fire fighting funding would fall short of the forest’s needs.
On the Stevensville Ranger District, only the Willow Mountain lookout will be staffed. BNF officials tried to find volunteers to staff St. Mary’s lookout above Stevensville on the valley’s west side, but were unsuccessful.
Only one lookout will be staffed in the Darby Ranger District. The decision was made to staff Deer Mountain lookout because the view is so expansive.
On the Sula Ranger District, only Teepee Peak lookout will have a staffer. Floch said Teepee Peak was chosen because its site provides a view into the East Fork drainage.
There are five lookouts on the huge West Fork Ranger District, which includes vast areas of wilderness. But only two—Bare Cone and Hell’s Half Acre—will be staffed. The West Fork Volunteer Fire Department has agreed to send firefighters to the Lookout Mountain station on an as-needed basis, such as in the event of dry lighting strikes.
Though some might consider fire lookouts to be little more than romantic relics of a bygone age, Floch said they serve several important purposes. The people staffing them are able to monitor let-burn fires in the wilderness; they keep intrusive air surveillance to a minimum; they reduce the risk to pilots; and they are able to stay in touch with fire fighting ground crews in a way pilots can’t.
“They serve a function that’s hard to replace,” Floch said.