Oregon used to have hundreds of fire lookouts perched on mountaintops. Every summer men and women were hired to live in or near these fire lookouts and spend their days watching out for forest fires. Eventually planes and satellites became a more efficient way of spotting fires, and today only a few fire lookouts remain. Some sit abandoned, some can be rented by members of the public for overnight stays, and some are still staffed in summer.
Clear Lake Butte is about 15 miles south of Mt. Hood. The Clackamas/Wasco county line goes right over the top of the butte. A 100 foot observation tower was constructed here in 1932. On a recent hike up to the butte, the woman staffing the current fire lookout showed me a picture of the original tower.
The original 1932 fire lookout on Clear Lake Butte
She also had pictures of a fallen tree that she had found while wandering around the summit. The tree had remains of ladder rungs along its length, which she supposed was leftover from a long-gone crow’s nest lookout at the top of the tree.
In the early years the person staffing the tower slept in a tent at the foot of the tower. A canvas fly covered a rough table, ice-box, and cookstove. In his book, Tales of High Clackamas Country, F. Alton Everest tells a story about Robin Hoodwink (not his real name) who briefly staffed the tower in 1934 before he was fired. One day Robin called down to the office.
“I’ve got a fire,” he yelled excitedly.
“Give me a bearing on it,” I said.
“No! No! I’ve got a fire right here. The grease in my frying pan caught fire and set the tarp on fire.”
“Well for the luva-mike, get off the phone and put it out before you start a forest fire.” Click. He hung up.
After about twenty minutes he phoned back. “Everything under control. I pulled the tarp down and beat the blaze out with a gunny sack.”
The first tower was replaced by a 41 foot wooden tower with an R-6 cab in 1962. The photo below shows this tower 30 years ago when the trees were shorter and you could see Mt. Hood from the ground.
Clear Lake Butte fire lookout, 1982 (Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, by Ray Kresek; photo by Ray Kresek)
That lookout still stands and is one of a few in the Mt. Hood National Forest that is staffed in summertime. These days the trees have gotten taller and there is no view of the mountain from the ground.
Clear Lake Butte fire lookout, 2012