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Fire Tower Lookouts: Guardians of Montana's Wilderness

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Posted at 5:15 PM, Jul 01, 2024

AUGUSTA — Montana, renowned for its expansive wilderness, majestic mountain ranges, and abundant wildlife, is vigilantly watched over by a unique group of individuals: fire tower lookouts.

These dedicated professionals play a crucial role in maintaining the safety and preservation of the state’s natural beauty.

Fire Tower Lookouts: Guardians of Montana's Wilderness

In this "Odd Jobs" segment, we meet Samsara (Sam) Duffey, a seasoned fire tower lookout who has devoted more than 28 years to this vital work.

A Day in the Life of a Fire Tower Lookout

Sam, who works for the Forest Service, shared insights into her fascinating yet challenging job. “I like sharing this kind of life with people because it's not a common position,” She explained. “One of the things I absolutely love about our lookouts is we are wilderness lookouts, which means we have to hike in or get a pack string in. So it takes a little bit of a different approach—you don't just run to town for days off.”

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In addition to monitoring for fires, Duffey communicates with other ground crews, ensuring coordinated and effective responses to any potential threats. During one radio check, a ground crew member mentioned the start of the seasonal southbound migrations, emphasizing the varied activities and communications Duffey manages from her remote vantage point.

The Isolation and Solitude of the Job

The role of a fire tower lookout comes with significant isolation, a factor that might deter many. However, Duffey embraces this aspect. “One of the great things for both of us is that he (Sam’s husband) and I both did what our careers are before we met. So it worked out really easily to make our lives work together,” she said.

She appreciates the solitude, finding solace in the simple yet profound beauty of her surroundings. From her main workstation, she enjoys a clear view of the Scapegoat Plateau, describing it as her personal sanctuary.

Tools of the Trade

One of the essential tools for a fire lookout is the Osborne Firefinder, a device used since 1934. “It is a very simple and elegant tool,” Duffey noted, showing off her slightly dusty but reliable instrument. “If I cannot see the base of the fire, this is where this also gets really important. Having more lookouts, we can triangulate, draw lines, and get a pretty accurate location.”

Fire Towers in Montana

Montana is home to numerous fire towers, each strategically placed to provide extensive views of the surrounding areas.

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These towers, often isolated and requiring challenging hikes to reach, are crucial for early fire detection. Fire lookouts like Duffey are stationed across Montana's vast wilderness areas, including iconic regions such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park.

The Bigger Picture

For Duffey, being a fire lookout is about more than just spotting fires. It’s about preserving the interconnected landscapes that make up Montana’s natural heritage. “Try to say, okay, so you came here, this is great. You love the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Fantastic. I do too. But because I value this, I value that as well. And trying to get people to realize that these public landscapes that we value, whether it's Yellowstone or the Bob Marshall, it's not in a bubble. It's not isolated. It's actually connected to all of these other things.”

How to Report a Fire

Montana residents and visitors play a crucial role in wildfire prevention.

If you spot a fire, it’s essential to report it immediately to local authorities or the nearest Forest Service office. Be ready to provide as much detail as possible about the fire's location and size to assist lookouts and firefighting teams in their response efforts.

Fire tower lookouts like Sam Duffey exemplify dedication and resilience, ensuring that Montana's wild landscapes remain protected for future generations to enjoy.