BY: LAURA ROJAS
If you’ve ever read popular works of American literature, namely Jack Kerouac or Edward Abbey, you’ve likely encountered the romanticized existence of a fire lookout as a possible occupation. This is as direct as it sounds— a job up in the mountains overlooking deep forest with the task of spotting the smoke of beginning forest fires and calling for backup if things get out of hand.
Leif Haugen, a fire lookout employed with the U.S. Forest Service, has been maintaining this occupation since 1994, making the journey up to Flathead National Park in Montana by himself for six months every year.
A short, 15 minute documentary produced by Brian Bolster for The Atlantic traces Haugen’s day-to-day routine as a fire lookout. Six Months Alone opens up with a painfully beautiful shot of the mountains, the sky, and the tiny hundred-year-old cabin that acts as living quarters for whoever is brave enough to take on the job.
“When I started, it was more about just living in this space, living in this kind of place where you’re up in a mountain in the weather, the clouds, with the sunrise and the sunset coming so close together in mid-summer…and then you start to enjoy the work of it,” Leif narrates.
It’s not for everyone, but a job as a fire lookout is an adventurous alternative to life at ground level. A few requirements are obvious: you must be capable of reading an Osborne Fire Finder— an antiquated, but incredibly accurate device which finds the exact directional bearing of wildfire smoke. You must be physically and mentally fit, as Haugen tells, the nearest freshwater stream is a three-mile round trip. You must love solitude and spending time with yourself, as there is absolutely no one around to keep you company. The risks are high. Are the rewards that great?
Haugen seems to think so. “I think there’s something about keeping things simple that is resonant and feels good. This is a reminder of keeping things simple. It’s just me and this place.”
According to an article by Tom Persinger written for American Forests, fire lookouts have existed since the 1870s when the first station was built in Montana. After the massive California fires of 1910, the occupation became less of a convenience and more of a necessity in order to prevent that scale of natural destruction from ever reoccurring, although that’s a difficult promise to make. At one point in time, there were up to five thousand fire lookout stations across the United States. However, technology has continued to improve and some of the stations are no longer in need of a person keeping guard. Today, only about two hundred and fifty stations are operational, particularly in remote, high-risk areas like Flathead National Park.
The rarity of the occupation becomes a direct part of the charm. The job of a fire lookout becomes tradition and a way to live, like Haugen says, in simpler times. Times more connected with natural interactions, fresh air, and reading under moonlight instead of LED.
Imagine taking your comfortable, Western lifestyle and turning it upside down on a mountain peak. Imagine, the panoramic view of early morning and dusk each day. Experiencing a thunderstorm from a height where you can see each individual ray of lightning emerging from dark clouds, guessing where they’re going to land. “It’s quite an auditory and sensory experience,” he admits.
After watching Six Months Alone, it’s not surprising why this job has inspired such quality literature. It’s almost like a writer’s retreat—but where you’re essentially paid to be the guardian of an entire forest.
Although the pay isn’t said to be very much, the wealth of experience alone is worth much more. Haugen himself says writing occupies a lot of his time in the lookout, along with remodelling and making little repairs here and there in order to preserve the valuable historic importance behind the structure. “It’s an incredible way to spend the summer,” he says. In his eyes, you can see how much he means it.