Old fire lookout gets complete makeover

By Renee Bodine

For The Courier-Herald

It was a good day to dedicate a lookout – clear, and except for a little haze from a fire burning on the Olympic Peninsula, one could see for miles.

About 30 people clustered around the staging area just southeast and in sight of the Kelly Butte Lookout in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to celebrate the end of five years of restoration work. Volunteers, Forest Service employees, the national chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and even a couple of former lookout staffers were on hand the afternoon of Sept. 10.

The lookout is about 15 miles from Greenwater, accessed by Forest Service 70 Road.

A scope was set up on the edge of the landing so they could view the finished lookout.  Several of the men reminisced while looking through an old photo album with black and white  pictures showing young men at Kelly Butte through the years; some posed with guitars and others using the Osborne Fire Finder. When the ceremony started, several people shared their stories about lookouts and working on Kelly Butte.

John Sandor traveled from Juneau, Alaska, to revisit where he had worked as a young man.

“This lookout was built in 1926, the year I was born,” he said. “Sixteen years later I was working there, so this is especially rewarding.”

Sandor’s story about his first attempt to cook on the lookout was greeted with knowing laughs as he described how he ended up with a congealed glob of spaghetti because he didn’t wait for the water to boil.

Forrest Clark, an association member who has restored several lookouts, talked about why it took 140 hours to refinish the Kelly Butte Lookout door. He shared the difficulties of finding cedar to create historically correct roof shingles, making them and then discovering they were burned for firewood.

Daniel Leen staffed Kelly Butte Lookout in 1968. He said he was influenced to get the job because of writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. It was the next thing to do, he said; after all, he had hopped freight trains and climbed mountains.  It was a rite of passage for a young man of that era.

But being a lookout wasn’t a job for everyone: they packed in enough supplies for weeks and lived in solitude, getting mail infrequently. Leen said Snyder’s poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” best describes what it was like to work on the lookout. “The feeling that you are there by yourself: a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia.”

Bob Adler, who led the restoration effort, described how they replaced 80 window panes, refinished 19 window frames and built eight new shutters.  He talked about the logistical challenge of transporting the finished product a mile and a half up the mountain.

The Forest Service presented Adler a plaque for all his work. Keith Argow, chairman for the National Forest Fire Lookout Association, presented him another, proclaiming Kelly Butte as the 917th registered historical lookout in the United States.

An avid backpacker and hiker for 30 years in the Pacific Northwest, Adler likes high places. He has been heavily influenced by Ray Kresek’s book, “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest,” visited 187 lookouts and is a longtime member of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. So in 2006, when he was asked to lead the volunteer effort to restore Kelly Butte, he jumped at the opportunity. He rallied volunteers through, a popular hikers blog, where he is known as “lookout Bob,” and enlisted his coworkers at Seattle Public Library and the Washington Trails Association. The Forest Service provided funding through a Resource Advisory Committee grant.

Adler is moving on to work on other projects, but hopes someone will step up to take care of Kelly Butte.

“I love to work on these historical buildings and hate to see them go away,” he said. “There used to be 600 in Washington, now there’s only 90 and fading.”

After the ceremony, socializing and cake, Adler and few others made the one-hour hike to the Kelly Butte Lookout, perched at 5,379 feet, to enjoy the views and to attach two plaques to the building.

For information about Kelly Butte Lookout go to or call Enumclaw Public Service Center at 360-802-5310.


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