Fire Lookouts in the Swan Valley
June 15, 2023
Whether by natural lightning or by human hands, the landscape in Swan Valley has been shaped by fire. Only in the past hundred years or so have there been organized, concentrated efforts to suppress forest fires.
During the historic forest fire of 1910, over three million acres burned in the course of a few days, primarily in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, drastically changing the way the U. S. Forest Service dealt with wildfire. Pushed by strong winds, several small fires grew together, joined nearby fires, and expanded quickly into a fast-moving firestorm. The "Big Blowup of 1910" burned a few small towns and parts of larger ones, with the loss of life estimated at 85 people.
In the aftermath of the historic 1910 wildfire, the role of the Forest Service in wildfire suppression greatly expanded. More employees were hired to assist with fire suppression and trails and roads were built in remote areas. Fire lookout cabins, observation points, lookout trees, and towers were built to aid in the early detection of smoke and fire. Communications were improved with telephone lines that connected the lookouts to the Forest Service ranger stations.
The first lookouts were primitive "rag camps" that included a tent and often a nearby lookout tree or platform that afforded a view of the surrounding landscape. The lookout employee would camp in the nearest sheltered place below the lookout point.
Because jobs were scarce in Swan Valley in the early 20th century, many of the local homesteaders sought employment with the Forest Service. In 1916, homesteader Chris Sorenson helped build the Jim Creek lookout in the Mission Mountains. After completion of the lookout, Sorenson then manned it for several seasons. Many other homesteaders helped build and maintain the trails, telephone lines, and the 28 known lookouts scattered in the area.
Along with Charlie Anderson, Robert Hartwick, and Matt Hill, Henry Thomason was one of the first early-day homesteaders to work at the Holland Ridge Lookout. Located on a ridge high above Holland Lake, there were 61 switchbacks from the trailhead to the lookout site in the early 20th century. Previously a rag camp, Thomason described the comforts of the newly built lookout cabin in a letter written while at the lookout dated July 28, 1931. "I came up here the last days of June, have things nicer than the years I used to be here when it was a tent and candles. Now I have a oil stove and gas light, and an electric light above the map for night use, its (sic) from a battery," he wrote.
Harold Haasch, whose family homesteaded near Glacier Creek, recalled his experience as a 16-year-old firewatcher in 1933 at an emergency tent camp in an old burn on Cedar Ridge in the Mission Mountains. During an interview with Suzanne Vernon, Haasch recounted: "I was there just when the fire danger got so bad. You know how it gets when it gets so hazy and the high lookouts can't see very good. Then they put in the low lookouts down below this haze, where you don't have to look so far either."
Haasch had to walk about half a mile to Cedar Creek for water. "They [the Forest Service] gave you certain times of the day you could go. I used to go down there in the morning because it was cool. We'd just tell them on the phone that we were going for water. Might go pick huckleberries," he added.
Another early-day resident of the Swan Valley, John Hulett, remembered his first day as a firewatcher in 1934 at the Owl Peak tent camp in the Swan Range in an interview with Vernon. "There's an emergency point up the head of Lion Creek. They packed me up there right on the timberline. They had a map stand. No building. I got my tent up....and here comes a cloud. Here it hit, and it was hailing. I had a good fire going and I had my stove up....Every time the lightning would flash, the stovepipe would turn red hot. I don't know what caused that, but it turned plumb red. All of a sudden lightning struck right close. Paralyzed me. I could think, I wasn't unconscious, but I couldn't move. That was my first experience. I hadn't been there over half an hour when that happened to me," he said.
From 1961 to 1981, Pete Klein worked as a Forest Service employee in the summer often manning the Cooney Lookout. Only three lookout towers were in use in the upper Swan Valley in 1961: Elbow, Jim Creek, and Cooney Lookouts. By the mid-1970s, both Jim Creek and Elbow Lookouts were no longer in use. At that time the Forest Service had begun to rely on spotter airplanes, rather than lookouts for smoke detection. In an interview with Vernon, Klein recalled, "They were going to phase out all three towers. I did a little survey on how many of the fires had been spotted by the plane and how many had been spotted by the lookouts. Cooney beat all the lookouts and the plane combined. That convinced them not to get rid of Cooney."
Gene Miller, who grew up in the Swan Valley and attended the Smith Flats one-room school, has been sighting fires from lookouts for 50 seasons. His tenure as a U. S. Forest Service lookout began in 1956 at Priscilla Peak near Thompson Falls. After working as a relief staffer at several lookouts in the early 1970s, he spent 35 seasons at the Blue Mountain lookout near Missoula. In subsequent years, Miller worked as a volunteer lookout at several regional lookouts including the Cooney Lookout in the Swan Valley.
Fittingly, Miller finished his tenure as a fire lookout in the Swan Valley where his experiences as a youngster prepared him for life in remote mountain lookouts scanning the horizon for smoke and fire.