Green Mountain Fire - Passport in Time

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Green Mountain Fire Lookout Restoration

Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington, 2002–2003
by Gordon Pfister, PIT Volunteer

The Almost True History of the Lookcopter

In the north part of the state of Washington, the Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie NF had a problem. The old fire lookout on top of Green Mountain was in bad shape. Years of heavy northwest snows, shrieking winter gales, pouring rains, and rodent activity had left it wounded, soiled, and generally coming apart. This was a lookout that had performed its traditional backcountry tasks faithfully and well since the 1930s. It had to be saved.

A series of PIT projects was planned to restore the tower, beginning in the summer of 2000. For three consecutive summers, PIT volunteers helped with various aspects of the restoration: removing, reglazing, and replacing windows; trimming and painting; and restoring the interior details. At one point, our efforts resulted in western Washington temporarily running out of glazing compound. There are a lot of windows in a lookout! Most of the work was done at the FS compound in Darrington. The plan was to return with rejuvenated and repaired items to the mountaintop, where they would be combined (through the magic of yet another PIT project) with new lumber into a restored, historically accurate structure.

Several factors began to revise these plans however. One was the very large number of vertical feet separating the lookout roof from the rocks far, far below. The second was the very cramped, lumpy, and almost waterless camping place located well below the lookout’s constricted, lofty site. While the famous summer rains of the Pacific Northwest temporarily relieved the parched condition of the camp, it made working on the tower an even more precarious undertaking. Then there were the mosquitoes, at first mistaken by visiting PIT volunteers to be hummingbirds. The final straw was the heavy snow load in the winter of 2002–2003, which necessitated moving the entire structure to Darrington Ranger Station to finish the restoration. The station had a tool shop of woodworking power equipment. It had rain-proof volunteer housing. It had many level, flat, safe places where the lookout could be built in modules by workers standing on solid ground. These modules could then be flown into the site and much more quickly and safely assembled. That was the plan for the 2003 summer PIT effort.

Once the project began, however, several factors combined to further revise our plans. While modules were indeed quicker, easier, and, thus, safer to handle, some basic problems remained. Securing clear, straight-grained fir (as used in the original lookout) was difficult and downright cost-prohibitive when some could be found. The cost of flying in the completed modules was daunting. Even with all the work and new materials, the same factors that caused this poor lookout’s demise (wind, ice, snow, visiting adolescents, etc.) would bring the new structure to its knees all too soon. Too bad there wasn’t a way to take it out of that high and punishing environment for the winters. Prompted by one volunteer’s vision of an airplane propeller as he held a new 6-by-10 fir board in his hand, this talented and imaginative PIT crew (as all PIT crews are!) began coming up with a theory. 

The group determined that what was really needed was not modules that were flyable, but an entire, finished structure that could fly! We needed a LOOKout + a modern heliCOPTER; what we needed was a LOOKCOPTER. It would not need to go long distances or fly above the oxygen. A Mark III fire pump would probably provide all the power that was needed. The Lookcopter would not need much instrumentation. Do you really need a gas gauge when you only have a two-quart fuel supply maximum? The advantages of such a moveable lookout were staggering. If the visibility is poor, go somewhere else! If a hot summer afternoon brings too many visitors all asking dumb questions, leave! In fire season, spot the blaze, fly over it, dump a bucket of water and collect hazard pay plus overtime, contribute to the suppression effort, and still sleep in your own bed! In the fall, do flyovers at local high school football games. Land at halftime and display this marvel of FS history and modern technology. Solve access issues year-round by going to those that cannot come to the high and largely inaccessible perch points of the old lookout. The landing of a historic lookout in front of the local retirement center is bound to attract public notice and wide media attention. With a Lookcopter, a forest can put it in fire service all summer long, rent it out as a recreation cabin rental in the spring and fall, bring it back to snug quarters for maintenance and storage for the winter, and still have a year-round historical structure for the education and admiration of all.

“Are historical accuracy and flight compatible?” someone asked. Of course it would have to be a historically correct lookout as it sits, but who cares how it gets there? Do visitors to lookouts demand to see the mules that brought in the lumber or to meet the old guys who built the place? Of course not! “How are the rotors and tail assembly authentic?” someone else asked. They aren’t, so take them off. The top rotor pulls out easily and can be hidden away in the brush. The top hole is covered with a flattened gas can. Many are the backcountry cabin roof holes that have been so covered in the past. Pull the nails out of the tail assembly and hide it too. A big bunch of old nail holes is part of any historical mountain structure. The crew was ready and pawing at the ground. Materials were available, and a new marriage of antiquity and modern science was possible, practical, and profitable. And so, the plan was changed once again. The rest of this tome is strictly fictional.

Early use of the prototype lookcopter revealed some small flaws and valuable lessons. It was quickly learned that significant lift could be obtained by bringing the side shutters out to a full “flaps up” position. It was also found that the poles and hardware to hold the shutters up had to be much more robust than in the past. It was determined that liftoff from the lookout site could be made much easier if the lightning rod wire was unbolted from the deeply buried ground connection. (Otherwise flight was limited to an 80-foot circle around the departure point.) It was found that FS employees could quickly learn to fly about as well as they could drive. Several employees arrived at strange locations after taking a compass bearing from the corner by the stove. Many also found it difficult to remember to check the gearbox for pack rat nests before takeoff and to drain the Lookcopter oil on schedule. Fairly constant reminders had to be made that duct tape was not an acceptable substitute for proper maintenance and repair.

Several backpacker types were initially puzzled to find what appeared to be the same structure on three different peaks over one season. Several others, who identified themselves as “detail oriented,” openly questioned the historical authenticity of the structure. This was not based on the construction (which was flawless) but on the total absence of any “mouse prints.” Anyone familiar with backcountry structures of any kind will readily agree that such an absence is in stark contradiction to pellet reality. It may be that to provide for a completely accurate historical experience, totally hygienic, plastic MREs (Manufactured Rodent Excreta) will have to be scattered about before such sharp-eyed visitors arrive. An unexpected complication came from the use by one young, lonely lookout’s use of the Lookcopter to go out for pizza. The administration’s position was somewhat hostile until it was determined that the employee had never left her assigned workstation during the entire episode. 

From the “Land of Many Uses” has come a structure/ craft of many uses. Thanks to a small group of skilled and farsighted PIT planners and participants, an entirely new era of lookout use has begun. The impact of the Lookcopter is just beginning.
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