My sister, who lives in Wyoming, casually mentioned that she and her husband are going to stay at Sheep Mountain Fire Lookout the end of August.
To access this cabin atop the fire lookout tower, you must drive 28 miles east of Buffalo, Wyoming, until you see FSR 28, a single-lane gravel road. A sign notes that the road is passable by most vehicles during dry summer days, but because of sudden changes in weather conditions, a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
Campers are also told there is no potable water at the cabin and they must bring their own. “There is no housekeeper, so all renters are to clean the cabin before they leave,” the instructions note. “Green cleaning supplies are located in the kitchen.”
Forget a luxurious bath after a day of hiking because there is no indoor plumbing, but there’s a lovely outhouse near the lookout.
There’s no electricity, so don’t worry if you forget to bring a plug-in for your cell phone. The website also notes: “This area is a popular destination point, so complete privacy should not be expected.”
The amenities provided are a twin bunk-bed set, a table with two chairs, First-aid kit and fire extinguisher — and cleaning supplies, of course.
What is a fire tower and why would anyone want to camp next to it?
The Sheep Mountain Fire Lookout was constructed in 1950 at an elevation of 9,600 feet. It was used until the early 1970s for fire spotting.
Campers are told that the cabin on the lookout has four sturdy walls, a sound roof and “commanding views from the lower quadrant of the Bighorn Mountains all the way out to South Dakota’s forests. On a clear day, visitors can see Devils Tower National Monument. Due to the high elevation, guests should be prepared for high-altitude conditions including high winds. Summertime temperatures average 70 degrees but can drop as low as 30 degrees at night or during thunderstorms.”
The 1910 Great Fire killed 85 people and burned three million acres in northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington and southeast British Columbia.
Afterwards, the Forest Service, along with the Civilian Conservation Corp, built more than 5,000 fire lookout towers across the country. Some are one-room cabins on stilts, others are simply cabins on mountain tops.
Fire spotters would sit in the cabin and look for lightening strikes and smoke plumes, typically monitoring a 20-mile radius around the tower. By the late 1930s there were more than 800 manned towers, but this number dropped to 250 by 1964.
Last November, the L.A. Times ran an opinion piece (“California needs to restore an effective firefighting tool: Towers staffed with lookouts”) by Michael Guerin, who argued that fire towers should be brought back to California during fire season.
He wrote, “Few first reports of fires come from cameras, a Cal Fire spokesman said. They are most often used to monitor fires already reported. Volunteers from the Forest Fire Lookout Assn. are working with researchers to refine these capabilities, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $1.6 million for a prototype system for satellite-based detection.
“Lookouts and their towers should not be regarded as a sentimental anachronism. They are a critical tool awaiting California’s renewed investment — and might help reduce the state’s fire-suppression costs, which reached $635 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
“Automation may get to a point where it can more easily detect small fires, but it is not there yet. We still need to rely on old-fashioned human lookouts who are trained to ‘catch them small.’”
Guerin argued that staffing an existing tower is not prohibitively expensive; U.S. Forest seasonal lookouts make about $16,000 a summer, compared to $16,500 an hour to operate a Boeing 747 Air Tanker.
Until and if fire towers are reclaimed, there are various other fire towers in states besides Wyoming that can be rented for camping. The Forest Service strongly discourages parents from bringing children under 12 and also recommends that people afraid of heights or lacking physical strength should not attempt to climb up the lookout. The ladders to access most fire towers are steep and tall, and campers need to make multiple trips up and down the stairs.
The service notes that “Fire lookouts are generally safe, but they still involve a degree of risk. Due to their nature, fire towers are often the tallest structure on the mountain, making them prone to lightning strikes. However, the towers are outfitted with copper grounding cables and lightning rods to safely conduct the surge of electricity. Seasoned fire spotter Levi Brinegar described riding out storms while in the lookout: ‘The tower shakes…it feels like a miniature earthquake. The water in your glass sways.’”
Warning: Don’t expect to stay in a fire lookout this year. My sister booked their August 24-30 stay in February.