VFW Post – Enterprise, OR
September 16-18, 2022
About the FFLA.
The FFLA stands for Forest Fire Lookout Association and was founded in 1990 by a small gathering of enthusiasts. It has since grown to over 1,400 members across multiple local chapters within the states. Its main goal is to help spread awareness and advocate for the protection, restoration, and maintenance of historical Fire Lookouts. This is accomplished through grants, donations, and the partnership of volunteers, local public groups, and government agencies such as the Forest Service.
It has been two years since the last FFLA conference was held due to the Pandemic and six years since it’s been in Oregon. I wasn’t a member nor was I even aware of the Forest Fire Lookout Association at that time. I didn’t even visit my first Fire Lookout until 2017 (post). This particular conference was also important since it would be the first with their new chairman. I originally wasn’t going to go due to prior plans for that weekend, but things changed and I decided to commit to going by myself. I was a bit nervous since I would not know anyone there and would likely be younger than most. I also had no background in Forestry or Fire Lookouts to offer besides the fact that I found them interesting and wanted to be more involved. My partner was going to be out of town on his annual week-long camping trip with his dad. I was relieved when he decided to change around his plans a bit to meet me there. I have no problem traveling on my own or visiting places alone, but the social interactions are what made me the most nervous. My partner could talk for hours about Fire Lookouts and their history. He also has a better memory for it than I do. I didn’t have confidence that my own knowledge and interest would hold on its own.
This year the conference was being held in Enterprise, Oregon. My partner would be driving separately from their camp in the Ochoco NF to meet me at the Wallowa Lake State Park. And I would be heading over from Portland mid-day Thursday. It is roughly a 5-1/2 hour drive from Portland to Enterprise and closer to 6 hours to Wallowa Lake State Park. As the conference drew near, we were both contemplating whether we should still go or if it would even still happen. The Double Creek Fire had recently taken off and was currently burning at 155,297 acres with 15% containment (source). There were also the smaller Nebo, Sturgill, and Goat Mountain Two Fires burning in the near by Eagle Cap Wilderness. These were all coming together to cause poor air quality and heavy smoke for the area. Normally, these conditions would cause us to look for other plans. The FFLA didn’t seem too concerned though based on their updates and posts. The state park also had no notices or cautionary warnings about the fires. We figured if they cancelled our reservations that would be the final sign for us not to go. The cancellation never came and the air quality started improving by the day. We ultimately decided to go since the conference probably wouldn’t be held in Oregon for another few years. And it might be our only chance to meet some of these people in person. The weekend forecast called for rain and potential thunderstorms. I was hopeful the rain would be enough to dampen the smoke and that the thunderstorms would be minimal. I ended up working a lot later than expected on Thursday and didn’t make it to our camp until after 9PM.
We woke up extra early to give us enough time to make breakfast and head over for check-in around 8:30AM. I was worried about being there late, but we ended up getting there fairly early. We noticed they had muffins, fruit, and coffee set out for the members to enjoy (something that would have saved us some time this morning if we had known beforehand). I was thankful for the coffee since I didn’t have time to percolate any in camp. We found some seats and nervously waited for the conference to start. Bob Bonstead, the head of Friends of Blue Mountains Lookouts, was hosting the conference this year. I had e-mailed him earlier this summer looking for potential volunteer opportunities, but I was a bit too late to be apart of their planned work parties for the season. He started the conference by a short presentation and introduction to our new FFLA chairman, Brad Ells. We also individually introduced ourselves with a short description on where we were from and our background in Fire Lookouts. It was fun, and a bit weird, to finally match faces to well-known names in the community. I’ve read so much about some of these people I felt like I already knew them. Like I said, weird. After our introductions, the presentations began for the morning and were as followed.
Welcome/FFLA State of Affairs.
Ray Kresek’s Fire Lookout Museum.
Cougar Pass L.O. & Commercial/Residential Pole Lookout Construction.
Pilchuck Restoration Lessons Learned.
During one of the breaks between presentations, I overheard someone asking the check-in if someone named Garnet was here. He was in the bathroom at the time, but I stopped to see how or why they might be looking for my partner. The person who had asked was the Lookout Relief, Bob, for Desolation Peak and Table Mountain. He had heard about my partner through his group chat. My partner had visited Mt. Ireland L.O. the day before to help break up his drive to the area. He had met the Lookout Attendant, Warren, and his wife currently on duty. They apparently bonded about their interest in Fire Lookouts and talked for hours. Warren enjoyed it so much that he mentioned him in the group chat and Bob wanted to meet him too. Garnet eventually came back and I waved him down. They talked for a while, but we had to sit back down for a few more presentations. When the conference stopped to take a break for lunch they talked a bit more and exchanged numbers. It was too bad since Bob had to leave to be back on duty, otherwise we would’ve tried to get to know him more. After lunch the conference hosts lookout tours in the area starting at 1:30PM and then a dinner at 6:30PM. We had brought a lunch with us but needed to make a quick stop at the store, gas station, and decided to head back to camp to swap cars. This made us late for the tour caravan. We still managed to see two Fire Lookouts that evening though, one of which lead us to completely missing the taco dinner that night.
We continued our theme of being late this morning. We had decided to sleep in a bit since we knew there would be some food provided for breakfast this time, but we still had a hard time sticking to the schedule. We came in and quietly stood in the back while the former chairman gave a speech about the projections for the association. There were more people here today and less available chairs. Eventually, someone kindly waved us over between presentations and made room for us to sit the remainder of the time. The presentations for the day were as followed with a break in between.
FFLA Past & Future.
Hat Point L.O. and the Battle Creek Fire.
Piecing Together Olympic Fire Lookout Stories.
AI Software for AlertWildfire Camera System.
Geocaching Lookout Challenge.
Bootleg Fire Forest Management Differences.
Afterwards, we took an hour break for lunch before meeting back up for another lookout tour. We brought our lunch and stayed at the post to avoid being late again, besides making a quick run to refuel. A few other members stayed behind to eat their lunches as well. We had the pleasure of mainly talking and eating lunch with Leslie Romer, the author of Lost Fire Lookout Hikes and Histories: Olympic Peninsula and Willapa Hills. It’s always interesting to hear about someone’s background and what brought them to the Fire Lookout community. We checked out some of the items up for silent auction and by then it was time to head out for the tour. We followed the caravan to the lookout we’d be touring for the evening. There was potential for everyone to visit Elk Mountain which is private as well, but the rancher didn’t want any vehicles with a catalytic converter driving through the tall grass. This eliminated almost every vehicle there. We decided to make a stop over at another lookout on the way back. We would’ve tried for a third, but we didn’t want to miss out on another dinner. We were still a few minutes late, but made it in time to eat Pizza and hear some of the final presentations. The night ended with the conclusion of the silent auction. I won my bids on a framed snowy picture of Swiftcurrent L.O. in Glacier NP and two books, Biography of a Small Mountain by Donna Ashworth and A Well Worn Path by Jay H. Cravens. Garnet won his bid on the book How High the Bounty by Jessie Louetta Wright, but was out bid on a shirt.
The conference was hosting an all day tour to multiple Fire Lookouts in the area. Unfortunately, we had to drive home and didn’t have time to partake in this portion. They had plans to visit Hoodoo Ridge, Lookout Mountain, High Ridge, and Howard Butte. They also offered directions for additional Fire Lookouts in the area and alternative loop options if you wanted to make your own self-guided tours. We debated making a stop over at High Ridge L.O. on our way home, but we ultimately decided it was too much with the drive if we wanted to make it home at a relatively decent hour. It also started raining before we left which was another deterrent but a good sign for the wildfires.
I learned quite a few different things during the conference that I found interesting. The first was that the white conduits you find in trees near existing or former Fire Lookouts that were used to string the telephone lines are from 1913 to 1929. The newer ones from 1929 to present are brown to help blend in with the environment. I also learned that it’s best to use an oil-based alkyd paint when refinishing a lookout, otherwise moisture can get trapped in the wood and create rot. The Rhino tool used by most fire crews now was invented by the FMO in the Umatilla NF, Gordon Reinhart, in the 1970s. The copper wiring on a Fire Lookout will look new when it’s been recently struck by lightning. And, unfortunately, the Double Creek fire currently burning in the Willowa-Whitman NF is the largest in that particular forests history.
There were two main weaknesses that I noticed the FFLA is facing right now. One is younger members and youth community outreach and the other is our societies reliance on technology, social media, and camera surveillance systems. A few members tried to bring up the topic and ideas to generate interest for younger members, but each time it seemed to be dismissed with a general response and no follow up. As some of the youngest people in the room it was a bit disappointing. I am sure it is a concern to the board members, but they seemed unsure on how to handle it. It’s a hard truth to face, but the association needs younger members to keep it alive. The second issue is a bit more complex. The presentation on the AlertWildfire Camera Systems was very informative and sparked a debate about lookouts versus cameras. I strongly agree that a Fire Lookout staffing a tower is more effective than just a camera, but trying to fight technology is a losing battle. Cameras will continue to be built and are here to stay, but I think there should be an attempt to change the narrative. Instead of us versus them, it should be viewed as an added tool and resource to Fire Lookouts. I understand that in some cases, like most of the ODF towers in Oregon, this has replaced people’s jobs. But, as the presentation showed camera detection is not accurate and can mistake clouds for smoke. It also showed that those staffing a Fire Lookout can have blind spots that could be spotted by cameras. Technology doesn’t always have to be the enemy. I know that’s easier said than done, especially working with government agencies that are already under funded and under staffed. Technology is also a helpful tool in reaching a younger generation that has grown up with it and heavily relies on it for information.
If you are interested in learning more about the FFLA or becoming a member, you can visit their website.