Lookout Tower Living

Three months living in a lookout tower, serving as fire lookouts, taught the author and her husband a lot about conserving limited resources.

| November/December 1980

  • 066 lookout tower - two panels
    This small lookout tower on Gisborne Mountain in Idaho was the author's home for three months.
  • 066 lookout tower - kitchen
    The kitchen in a lookout tower is necessarily compact and organized.
  • 066 lookout tower - fire plume
    Fire watchers are are responsible for spotting smoke plumes (such as the distant "cloud" in this picture) within a 20 mile radius.

  • 066 lookout tower - two panels
  • 066 lookout tower - kitchen
  • 066 lookout tower - fire plume

Feeling a slight sense of apprehension, I took my first look at what was to be home for my husband and me over the course of the three months to come: a 12' X 12' glass-enclosed room perched on top a 40-foot tower on northern Idaho's Gisborne Mountain. Mike and I were about to begin a season as fire lookouts for the U.S. Forest Service, and I was still a bit leery of the rustic life we would lead in our crow's-nest.

The lookout tower was at the end of a chunky, rutted road some 30 miles from a store, ten miles from our nearest neighbor, and two miles from any source of water. We had no electricity, and only a small government radio for communication. The furnishings in our mountaintop aerie included a bed, a table and two chairs, a tiny stove, a midget refrigerator ... and the tool of our "trade": the four-foot-tall fire-finder we used to search for plumes of smoke.

Besides spotting possible blazes, our other responsibility was to report daily weather data to the regional Forest Service station. So, as you can imagine, we looked forward to having a lot of spare time to enjoy our magnificent 360° view of mountains, lakes, and sky.

Water Conservation

Soon after settling into the lofty home, we realized that water would be our most precious resource. Because the nearest spring was a round-trip hike of four miles, we had to devise ways to conserve the supply (a Forest Service truck made periodic — if irregular — visits to fill up our two 10-gallon tanks).

The biggest water wasters in most urban homes, of course, are the various components of the indoor plumbing system. Since we had an outhouse — and no piped-in water — we didn't even have to concern ourselves with that kind of extravagance. Mike and I found, however, that we were able to save still more of the valuable liquid by practicing our own unorthodox (but efficient! ) conservation methods.

Our baths were usually shared, short (nobody lingers when bathing on a windy catwalk in 40°F weather!) ... and limited to one every two or three days. We washed our clothes — once a week — in the rainwater collected in a two-gallon bucket. Furthermore, Mike and I found that — if we steamed our vegetables — the same water could be reused for several meals. We also made it a habit to eat together, out of the same pot or pan, so that we'd have fewer dishes to do. Then all our eating and cooking utensils for the day were washed after dinner ... and one evening's rinse water was saved to serve as the next day's wash water.

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