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Timber Frames

Fire Lookout/Observation Towers: History, Construction, Locations

May 30, 2024

The owner of Homestead Timber Frames is an acting volunteer fire department Chief in a small town in the mountains of Idaho, so it is no surprise that he is ready to build a timber frame fire lookout/observation tower.  What is that you ask?  Although the answer seems obvious, there are many applications for one, and in this article, we will look at the history and construction of these structures and even give you a few locations to look at near you.

History of the Fire Lookout Tower

Since the early 1900s fire lookout towers have played a vital role in the early detection of forest fires and prevention.  The movement started mainly in the Northwestern part of the United States after the devastating Big Blowup fire of 1910 that burned about 4700 square miles of land in that region.  Immediately following this big fire, the US Forest Service began to build these fire lookout towers in the national forests across the US.  The first towers were simple wooden structures, sometimes just platforms on tall trees. 

Later they would be built using steel. During World War II these towers often were used as lookout observation posts to help spot enemy aircraft along the coasts of the US.  During this time, they were at the peak of their operational use. These towers would see a decline in use when technology evolved and the use of aerial surveillance, satellite technology, and improved communications systems were employed for such purposes.  Many towers would be left abandoned or repurposed until the 1990s when people began to restore them and use them for recreation, tourist attractions, and even living quarters for the adventurous.

Construction

Fire lookout towers have been constructed using many methods and materials over the years.  Here is a brief look at these methods.

  1. Wooden Platforms: Early 1900’s these were simple platforms built in tall trees or on the tops of hills.  They were typically built using readily available wood and were very basic in design.  They provided an easy high vantage point for early fire detection.
  2. Wooden Towers: Earlier towers were built of wood and were meant to be a more permanent solution than the platforms used before them.  They were built on-site from local timber and usually had a cabin or enclosed room on top of the wooden framework.  The roofs were often hip or slanted roofs to help them withstand weather conditions.
  3. Steel Towers:  As a more permanent structure was needed, these towers began being built using steel.  These were prefabricated in sections, taken to the site,     and assembled there.  These steel towers provide more stability, longevity, and resistance to fire.  This design usually included a steel framework with an enclosed cabin at the top accessed by a staircase or steel ladder.
  4. L-4 Lookout Houses:  These were small, prefabricated cabins on top of a wooden or steel tower, designed to provide 360-degree visibility using large windows on all sides.
  5. Ground Cabins or Cupolas:  These types of lookouts were built where nature provided the highest point, and no additional height was needed.  They had large windows and were oriented on the top of ridges or peaks to offer the best visibility of the area.
  6. Modern Innovations:  As time passed, some lookout towers were built using materials such as concrete and fiberglass.  These materials provided additional resistance to the environment.  They often included advanced technology such as solar panels, communication equipment, and lightning protection.  

All of these construction methods mentioned had one thing in common.  They all aimed to provide a high vantage point while providing durability and safety.

Locations

Most fire lookout and observation towers in the United States can be located in the West.  Due to the natural wildfires that occur every year, these were strategically placed to help with the early detection and prevention of these fires.  There are however fire lookout and observation towers in most states according to this list on the US Forest  Fire Lookout Association. https://www.firelookout.org/worldwide-lookout-library.html

Now you know a little about the history and construction of these historic structures and where you might be able to find one.  If you find yourself in need of such a tower, for any reason, give us a call.  We would love to build one for you.  Let your dreams reach new heights as you sit atop the trees in your own timber frame observation tower. 

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