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A view from the mountaintop: Looking back at fire towers in Yellowstone NP

Posted at 11:02 AM, Nov 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-20 12:35:47-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Fire has always been a part of Yellowstone, but how fire is managed has changed.

High tech weather computers, satellite imagery, and aircraft are used today to monitor fire in the park.

In the days before satellite and aircraft, the tops of mountains were the best way to see what was happening in Yellowstone. With the park covering two million acres that required the tops of few mountains.

“They had proposed 16 lookouts throughout the park to be able to really have a good understanding of the entire landscape,” said Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone National Park Historian. “They wanted to have 12, what the called ‘Significant Lookouts’ and then four secondary.”

But not all the towers were the same.

“There were actually, probably five manned lookouts,” said Mount Washburn Fire Lookout Ed Stark. “Mount Sheridan, Mount Holmes, Divide, and Pelican Cone, in addition to this one.”

The others were used when needed. Staff would go there during peak times and stay for a week.  While much of the park’s administrative buildings were built by the US Army, civilians took care of the lookout towers.

“They used the CCC crews that were stationed in the park, which is a really neat tie-in,” said Murphy. “I think they pre-build these structures in Mammoth and then the CCC crews went out and built the trails to the top of these mountains, which is quite a feat.”

Only Mount Washburn remains as a fire lookout today, though some of the buildings do serve other uses.

“There are still lookout towers on some of these peaks, but they’re more used as patrol cabins or historic structures,” said Murphy.

One lookout tower remains a bit of park lore.

“There’s still some question as to whether one was ever built on the Promontory or not,” said Stark. “It’s in the record, but nobody can find any evidence that it was ever built, so we’ve had them all over the park.”

While they were once all over the park, only Mount Washburn remains as anything more than an old photograph from the parks early years.

Mount Washburn is the only fire lookout in the park accessible to the public, but it does require a 3-mile hike to get there.

The trail is only accessible in the summer and the trailhead can be found in two places on Dunraven Pass.

-Chet Layman reporting for MTN News