HUSON - About 7,000 feet in the air above the Lolo National Forest you'll find one of the top defenses against wildfires in Western Montana.
It takes a little over 90 minutes to reach the lookout which was officially staffed in 1964 and serves as one of five active fire lookouts for the Lolo National Forest.
Tom Wegner — a former Wisconsin teacher — has been stationed at Stark Mountain for 10 years.
He comes to Montana during fire season and works as long as 13 days in a row.
“It’s not so much a job, but a way of life," said Wegner. "The first thing, I check for smoke and the last thing I check for is smoke. And in between a lot of checking for smoke.”
A 360-degree view from the deck makes it easy for Wegner to be the eyes and ear for crews on the ground if a fire does start.
“There’s a lot of punctuated equilibrium type things, where one minute you might not be doing much and the next minute all heck is breaking loose and you’ve got a lot on your plate,” Wegner told MTN News.
Firefighters on the Lolo National Forest have responded to 26 wildfires; nine lightning-caused fires and 17 human-caused, so far this year, making Wegner’s job an important one.
Between checking for smoke, communicating on the radio and mapping out possible fires, Wegner doesn’t get too much downtime.
But when he does, he gets to enjoy the beauty of the mountains that surround him… finding solitude.
“In each minute is a piece of magic, and in each moment are a thousand gold pieces, and that’s very much what it is like working here," said Wegner.