Idaho once had close to one thousand fire lookout towers—more than any other state in the Pacific Northwest. Today, that number has dropped dramatically as fire management increasingly relies on infrared and drone technology over human power. A new book, The Last Lookout on Dunn Peak: Fire Spotting in Idaho’s St. Joe National Forest by Nancy Sule Hammond, captures that lost era and recounts a life few will now experience—serving as a United Forest Service fire lookout.
When married high school sweethearts Don and Nancy arrived at his first post eight miles northwest of Avery, Idaho, in 1972, Nancy was puzzled. “I’d expected to find majestic conifers, lots of them,” she says. “But every mountain for miles around was covered in stubby scrub brush and weeds. Now I understood why that other lookout had quit. He was embarrassed to work in a forest without trees.” Their first task was to lug provisions and water up the Dunn Peak Lookout’s steep stairs to the fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cab two stories above the forest floor. The sparse furnishings included a single bed, small bookcase, cabinet, table, and a wood stove. There was no electricity or running water. A battery powered two-way Motorola radio was their only connection to the outside world. That night—engulfed by thunderbolts and filled with adrenalin—they faced their first storm. “It stalled right over our heads. I jumped at each lightning strike,” Nancy recalls.
Unless it was foggy or raining while he was on duty, the Forest Service required Don to conduct binocular searches from the catwalk for at least twenty minutes of every hour. He watched for smoke during the day and the glow of fire at night, and learned to distinguish between blue smoke plumes and white wisps of fog. Despite the primitive conditions, Don, Nancy, and their Dalmatian, Misty, settled in and came to love their lookout adventure. They spotted wildfires, were startled by their first cougar scream, encountered a wide variety of human and animal visitors, discovered delectable huckleberry patches, and simply enjoyed the enchanting beauty all around them.
Don was the last fire spotter to work there. The following year, the Forest Service decided to close the Dunn Peak Lookout, so the couple spent the summer of 1973 at the Middle Sister Peak tower, ten miles southeast of Avery. In The Last Lookout, Nancy shares stories from those two exciting, magical fire seasons, along with their return as volunteers 37 years later. Interspersing her accounts with regional fire history as well as dangers and details of the work, she journeys back to the narrow catwalks and stunning panoramas—a place where storms are building, the landscape is dry, and any lightning strike could ignite a raging wildfire.