▶ Watch Video: Fire lookouts keep watch over threatened forests

Perched high atop Mount Bolivar in Northern California, Karita Knisely spends her summer scanning the skies. Most days, all she sees are clouds and trees – the firs and pines of Klamath National Forest. She’ll record a family of deer with her phone. A hummingbird or two might stop by.

But what she’s looking for is smoke. Because where there’s smoke, there’s fire. 

The Dixie Fire burns down a hillside near Taylorsville in Plumas County, Calif., Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. The Dixie Fire has burned more than half a million acres in the past month, and as of Saturday was just 31% contained. 

Noah Berger/AP

This year’s wildfire season has gotten off to a record-breaking start, and it’s only expected to get worse. In towers across the country, lookouts like Knisley are working to spot those fires before they blaze out of control.

“This job is very fun. I mean, it’s so unique,” Knisely told correspondent Conor Knighton. “But it’s a very serious job, too. People’s lives, property depend on you.”

This is only Knisely’s second year fire-spotting. She moved from Virginia to Northern California to be closer to her grandkids.

“So, you moved out here to be close to the grandkids, and then you take a job on the top of the mountain?” asked Knighton.

“Yeah!” she laughed. ” “This is sort of my retirement plan, five months working in the towers and seven months off.”

Karita Knisely keeps watch for telltale signs of fire, atop Mount Bolivar in Klamath National Forest, California. 

CBS News

From May to October, Knisely spends four days a week in this one-room tower, which serves as home and office. She records the weather, radios in reports, and keeps her eyes peeled for lightning strikes.

Knighton asked, “Does it ever get lonely?”

“Not really. I don’t get lonely up here. And you know, you stay pretty busy.”

Of course, there’s still plenty of downtime. Knisely uses hers to work on her family’s genealogy. “A lot of people who are lookouts are writers. And that might even be one of the reasons they come to a lookout. You know, what a nice place, you know, solitude place to continue with your writing.”

That’s exactly why Jack Kerouac took a job as a lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington during the summer of 1956.

Today, those in search of solitude can rent a tower. The Forest Service has made some of the decommissioned sites available for nightly bookings.

While there were once thousands of active towers across the country, these days only a few hundred are still staffed. The buildings are expensive to maintain, and modern technologies (like drones and webcams) have replaced some of the functions of a lookout. But at a remote, rugged forest like Klamath, they’re still very much in use. There are currently eight active towers, two of which were recently evacuated due to nearby fires.

Staffed fire lookout towers in Klamath National Forest. 

CBS News

“Out here, we don’t have that luxury of cell phones,” said Kyle Mikolajczyk, the fire prevention officer at Klamath. “And we have a lot of terrain that people don’t see. So, we rely on them very much.”

Knighton asked, “When you’re looking for a lookout, what are you looking for?”

“I guess reliability is the biggest thing up there,” Mikolajczyk replied. “They’re there by themselves. We need somebody that’s self-motivated and reliable.”

Back in 1913, the forest received an unexpected application from a Miss Hallie Morse Daggett. She became the first female lookout in Forest Service history, and held the position for 15 years.

“It’s pretty spectacular to walk in Hallie Daggett’s boots,” laughed Jodi King. “She had to ride a mule up here. I get to bring a Ford!”

King is the lookout at Eddy Gulch, the same location where Daggett served a century ago. A California native, King grew up wanting to be a lookout: “By 10 or 12, I knew this is what I wanted to do. It’s awesome to watch the forest change, from sunrise to sunset. It’s spectacular.”

King has worked as a lookout for 30 years, using a tool that was first developed back in Hallie Daggett’s era. The Osborne Fire Finder, invented in 1915, helps lookouts plot the location of smoke so that they can relay those coordinates to firefighters on the ground.

Lookout Jodi King shows correspondent Conor Knighton the Osborne Fire Finder, an alidade with two sighting apertures used to pinpoint the location of a fire. 

CBS News

“I’m surprised that this is still the way that you’re doing this job,” Knighton said.

“It’s accurate, it’s perfect,” King replied. “It can’t be made any better.”

Fifty percent of all fires on the Klamath are first identified by the lookouts. And given this summer’s dry conditions, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

That sense of responsibility is what keeps King coming back.

“I’m watching out over my country here,” King said. “I love this land; it’s home.”

The fire lookout tower at Eddy Gulch, in Klamath National Forest. 

CBS News

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

See also: 

Documentary looks at global wildfire crisis