Fire Lookout Celebrates Half-Century of Service

After 50 years on the job, fire lookout Wayne Pease is not yet ready to give up his corner office. That’s because his is not just any corner office. His comes with a view that even the most power-hungry executive might envy: 360 degrees of mountainous northern California national forest. Pease, who has spent 30 of his 50 years at Mount Hough on the Plumas National Forest (PNF), says that when he returns each season the view still takes his breath away. “I never get tired of it,” says the 73-year-old.

For five decades, Pease has been the eyes of the Forest Service, spotting and reporting smoke or any other warning sign of wildfire. Few have been on the job as long. No official record exists for the longest-serving lookout, says Dave Bula of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA). His group could name just two people whose service was on par with Pease’s.
After all these years, Pease continues to find the work satisfying. “I still really like being able to spot a smoke,” he says. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”

But he harbors no romantic notions about his job. “You have to like washing windows.”

Pease is matter-of-fact about the occupational hazards. Over the years his towers have been hit by lightning “dozens of times. The first time, I swear I levitated,” he says. Although he has never had to evacuate, some of his former posts have burned. At Mount Hough, he figures he would jump in nearby Crystal Lake if it came to that.

Pease believes he was destined to be a lookout. When he was 11, his family took a cross-country trip and stopped at what is now Pinnacles National Park in central California, where he hiked to a lookout on North Chalone Peak. He recalls thinking, “This is pretty neat.”

By his early twenties, Pease knew he wanted to work as a lookout. Landing his first job, at Bunker Hill on the El Dorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe, was a matter of luck. “The guy they hired didn’t show up, so I got the job,” Pease says.

Very remote, Bunker Hill had no telephone, no electricity and no visitors. During fire season, May through October, Pease worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $1.95 an hour. He says he “went down the mountain maybe once” that summer. It was a tough assignment, but he can laugh about it now. “It’s hard when you’re young and lonely!”

Much about the job has changed since then. Today he works eight hours a day, 10 days on and four days off. He has electricity, a cell phone and wifi. He spends his time off in Chico, a two-hour drive away. “At some point the loneliness disappeared,” Pease says. “It is so alleviated by the technology.” He has more creature comforts, too. His “bucket shower” is a thing of the past thanks to a new tank that delivers enough water for a proper, if low-flow, shower. He still has an outhouse, though.

The same technology that allows him to stay connected has also changed fire detection strategies. Thousands of lookouts once dotted the country. Beginning in the 1970s, advances in firefighting technology led to a decline in lookout use. Now, high-definition cameras, microwave wireless links and telecommunications equipment are sometimes used in place of or to complement staffed lookouts. Budget concerns and redundancy drove reductions in look-outs back then as well; many look-outs were simply closed because they had over overlapping coverage. California has 58 staffed lookouts on 13 national forests today, according to the Forest Service.

Pease continues to stand by the work he does, saying, “even the best technology can’t beat human eyes that know the terrain. “We saved a lot of houses,” he says of the time earlier in his career at Stateline and Angora lookouts near Lake Tahoe.

Proud as he is of his work, he acknowledges that in many ways the seasonal job has not been “practical.” But it has allowed him to live the life he wanted by giving him the time and freedom to pursue his creative and intellectual interests. “I wanted the job to write,” he says. Over the years he has earned a degree in English, written poetry, organized readings and produced plays. The off-season has been his time to travel. His destinations have included Asia and Australia, but his favorite place is Europe for its art museums. Today, his passion is photography. He maintains a website (www.pbase.com/wwp) with hundreds of his pictures.

His tenure has also given him a deep respect for the forests he protects. “That first summer at Bunker Hill was magical,” Pease remembers. “I have enjoyed being more participatory with nature.”  

Looking back on his half-century of service, Pease says, “I don’t have any regrets. Things speeded by so fast. I was always focused on the next thing.”

Pease is being celebrated this Saturday, August 17 at the Plumas-Sierra County Fair. Fair goers are invited to stop by Mt. Ingalls Look-out at 2:00 o’clock, meet Pease and enjoy cake and story-telling.

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