YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Fire is a natural part of life in Yellowstone National Park, but it is also something officials are constantly watching. High atop Dunraven Pass is the last remaining full-time, resident Fire Lookout Tower in the park.
The Mount Washburn Fire Lookout was a little smaller than it is today when it was first built back in the 1920s.
“Very shortly thereafter, they discovered it wasn’t fit for today’s modern lookouts because the windows were small,” said Mt. Washburn Fire Lookout resident Ed Stark. “As you can see, this place has got some nice windows here and they rebuilt it beginning in 1931.”
For a time, Yellowstone had as many as a dozen lookout towers. Mount Washburn remains as the last hosting a full-time resident each summer. Ed Stark has been that resident for 12 years.
“Fire lookouts have been called everything from The Eyes of the Mountain to Freaks on Peaks, Stewards of the Mountain,” Stark said.
In Stark’s case on Mount Washburn, ‘tourist information officer’ also applies. Dozens of people almost daily in the summer make their way up the 3-mile trail to Stark’s home in the clouds. Fire lookout is his work, but because he’s at 10,000-plus feet, he’s sometimes an eye-in-the-sky traffic cop.
“The people in Tower don’t like when I call because that usually means I’ve seen a bear jam down below and they’ve got a traffic jam they’re going to have to go and break up, so we look around and watch what’s happening,” he said.
Modern technology has changed the role of the fire lookout. Still, when he’s not chatting with visitors, Stark is scanning the park looking for early signs of fire.
“I’m still going to look out the window. My Latin teacher told me, ‘Mr. Stark, would you please pay attention? Nobody’s going to pay you to look out the window.’ I wish Mrs. Johnson was still alive because I’d say they’re not paying me much, but they’re paying me a little to look out the window,” he joked.
While Yellowstone had as many as a dozen towers at one time, not all of them were manned full time.
Stark’s journey begins with a hike to the tower in March and ends with a return to his vehicle when winter returns.
Story by Chet Layman, MTN News