British Columbia's Hidden Forest Fire Lookout
BC's long FORGOTTEN fire towers have sent many exploring but one remains untouched and off the records
A quick Google search turned up a single web page: A trail guide that briefly mentioned the existence of a rare structure its name I had stumbled across in my old Backroads Mapbook. Upon further search, later on, I would eventually find a Flickr gallery featuring pictures of the very place I would have returned from but sitting on the couch the night before with a second edition Backroads Mapbook in my hands I knew I had found something quite extraordinary.
Wildfire lookout towers aren't as common in British Columbia as they are in our neighbouring country to the south. In the States, these watchtowers are kept in pristine condition, actively serviced and occupied in the dry summer months to survey the vast unfolding landscapes for potentially catastrophic wildfires.
British Columbia's similar wildfire towers were decommissioned in the late 70s early 80s, opting for more advanced and modern monitoring systems. What was left of BC's towers, once occupied by individuals comfortable with isolation, high elevation weather conditions and breathtaking day-night cycles were abandoned or deconstructed entirely due to increased vandalism and the dangers the older infrastructure presented.
Fortunately, not all of these structures have fallen into complete disrepair. Towers like the ones situated on Greenstone Mountain and Cornwall Peak have been kept up by communities of adventurers using these buildings for shelter in the winter months. Other tower rebuilds have led to controversy between locals and the provincial government with Sicamous locals facing hefty fines for completing an unauthorized rebuild of the lookout atop the Eagle Pass Mountain trail.
And while other towers across BC attracted the interest of explorers one structure had seemingly been forgotten by history. In all of my previous searches for the various locations of these towers, this particular location, situated between two regions of BC, didn't appear in any records. Even an ex-forestry employee I spoke to was curious as to its location.
Despite the mystery surrounding its location, I pulled my car up to the gated entrance I had seen on Google Maps. As map books usually go, the trailhead was right where it was supposed to be, indicated by a faded wooden sign identifying the nearby mountain, posted to the top of the gate along with two other signs. NO TRESPASSING OR HUNTING read the white letters on a red background.
I certainly wasn't planning on hunting. Trespassing, on the other hand, could not be avoided. As per my prior research on the area, it was my understanding that a gate indicating crown land was positioned just a few kilometres up the double track trail. So with the sun in the sky and a distant radio tower as my guide in the south, I jumped the worn wooden gate and started up through the beige grass of the cattle ranch towards my destination.
The five kilometres of the dry, dusty trail passed me by within an hour as I climbed roughly 645 metres of elevation. I eventually did cross over onto crown land and was soon steps away from the radio tower that once greeted me from a distance. At the mountain's peak, something else stood out above the trees and rocks, the same square roof I had seen from a satellite view on Google Maps.
The teal green paint of the tower's base and railings had faded, revealing the true colour of the wood panelling and boards making the structure. White walls and dusty windows, some covered up by removable wooden shutters sat at the top of the structure, surrounded by an outer platform that dipped under the weight of my boots. An unobstructed 360-degree view of the valley was before me as I watched a wall of rain shower the farmlands beyond, inching slowly towards the mountain.
Drawing electricity from the nearby equipment, the lookout was outfitted with a stove, a half-sized refrigerator with a freezer compartment, two baseboard heaters not too far off from the ones in my home, as well as a single light mounted to the ceiling. In addition to a barren countertop and cupboards housing a discoloured box of Yahtzee, a twin sized bed frame sat in the corner. As for the floor, it was hard not to immediately notice the dead flies that had collected alongside a discoloured wildfire awareness poster.
I later learned that towers with access to electricity were a result of the industry repurposing these structures as repeat and relay bases during forest fire season. Mountain top repeater units capable of boosting communications through the BC Wildfire Service network have since been installed on over 331 locations across the province, powered by solar energy making these towers largely obsolete once again.
Rain and snow caught up to me within time thrashing the sides of the lookout in heavy wind. The door proved to be challenging to shut over a warping floor but once closed, not a breeze could be felt inside the tower.
Hours passed me by as I fortified myself within the walls of the aged lookout as I'm sure many have done before. Realizing this was a storm I couldn't wait out before sunset, I threw on a third layer and drew my hood all the while regretting my decision not to wear my waterproof pants. With the snow-covered tower at my back and a flash flooded trail at my feet, I started down the mountain towards a wooden gate, soaked in another summer storm.