At one point, Kittitas County’s forested landscape was dotted with towers staffed by men and women scanning the treetops for whiffs of smoke.

The remnants of that network in Kittitas County have all but disappeared.

The list of survivors is down to two — the fire lookouts at Red Top Mountain and Thorp Mountain. It would be a list of one if it weren’t for the work of a group of volunteers.

“Red Top was retired in the early 1990s,” said Nancy Jones, public information officer for the Cle Elum Ranger District. “It got going again because of the work of a group of volunteers (Friends of Red Top Mountain).”

The Friends of Red Top Mountain spent two years replacing the cupola house, originally built in 1928, and the lookout reopened in 1997.

Jones said Red Top is staffed by volunteers throughout the summer. Thorp Mountain is not staffed, but Forest Service personnel are occasionally sent to the lookout during times of high fire risk.

Popular gig

Jones said she has no problem filling the schedule with volunteers at Red Top.

“It’s a popular program,” Jones said.

Volunteers go through a training program.

“People go through six hours of training,” Jones said. “After you get trained, you’ll stay there for one, two or three-day shifts.”

Donna Willette of Cle Elum volunteered at the Red Top fire lookout for several years with her friend Peg Stapleton of Yakima.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Willette said. “We enjoyed it so much.”

Willette said the first time they went up to the unheated lookout was the first week in October — “That was cold,” she said — but after that they’d go up in July and August.

Part of the experience is meeting the many hikers who trek up to the fire lookout during the summer, particularly for the nearby agate beds. But there were tense moments as well.

“We had to sit on insulated stools during the lightning storms,” Willette said. “When the wind would come up it would feel like you were going over the edge.”

The pair spotted and reported a fire.

“It was a Cle Elum Ridge logging fire,” Willette said. “We were up all night with that one.”

Willette said in that situation, the smoke started spreading toward the lookout and they were relieved by a Forest Service crew.

Willette, age 79, gave up the lookout gig about five or six years ago. She’s still an avid hiker and appreciated what the lookout had to offer.

“Just being out there in nature, with the 360 degree view, it was great,” Willette said.

Changing times

Even when there were multiple lookouts operating there were quirks to the system — sometimes the nearest lookout would not be the one to report the fire.

“I remember in ‘87 when the Kachess Ridge fire got going. The Thorp Mountain lookout didn’t see it,” Jones said. “The Nason Ridge lookout near Wenatchee saw it first.”

Jones said sometimes a lookout is just too close to spot the smoke.

But it was not problem with proximity that led to the decommissioning for the fire lookout system.

“Aircraft really were the death of the tradition of fire lookouts,” Jones said.

Planes and modern technology have replaced the eyes in the towers.

“Now with satellites and GPS when we have lightning strikes we can get a map,” Jones said.

As technology has advanced, though, the passion of those who still seek out the experience of staffing fire lookouts has not receded.

“They’re serious about it,” Jones said. “They have real pride in being the first to spot a fire. … They are committed to what they are doing.”

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