A couple of construction mishaps couldn’t keep workers down as the Mount Peak Fire Lookout tower was finally put together last week.
Members of the Mount Peak Historical Fire Lookout Association, and their numerous fans, were ecstatic Wednesday, Sept. 29, when a cargo helicopter was scheduled to fly parts of the tower up Mount Peak for final construction.
“This is the final assembly point,” Doug Borst, president of the Association, said right before liftoff. “The hope is that they can get this done in a couple of hours.”
Members of the public weren’t allowed on the mountain that day, but Association members and construction crew witnessed a Boeing CH-47 Chinook — a twin-engined heavy-lift helicopter — make several passes up the mountain. The plan was to first pick up the tower’s framework, followed by the three pieces of the staircase, the platform, and finally, the roof, and drop the pieces off at the summit.
But a simple gust of wind drastically altered these plans.
As the Chinook was carrying up the second piece of the staircase up to the top, “the pilot experienced a sudden down draft which caused the stairs to collide with the tower structure and unfortunately damaged the stair case to the point that it could not be attached correctly,” Association Treasurer Paul Adams wrote on Facebook. Thus, work had to be called off for the day.
To add insult to injury, the poor weather on Sept. 30 prevented the helicopter from finishing its work, leaving the project in a lurch.
“We’re on hold, basically,” Borst said, adding that his “gut feeling” is that this delay will push back the opening of the tower.
Unfortunately, Oct. 1 held no relief either; “Friday morning, they went to fire the helicopter up and they had a warning light come on,” Borst said. “They weren’t able to track it down until late in the afternoon.”
But, he continued, Saturday, Oct. 2, went without a hitch.
“The tower is in place. All the pieces are there,” Borst said. “They will have some adjustments and fine-tuning to make over the next two to three weeks, and so I’m guessing sometime in that time period… they will be completed.”
Part of those fine-tuning adjustments include replacing the staircase railing that was damaged on Sept. 23; this is proving difficult, Borst said, because the kind of steel that is used for the tower is not locally available.
Although the tower may not be opened to the public for weeks yet, the Mount Peak Historical Fire Lookout Association is still going ahead with an Oct. 16 celebration at the big tent on the corner of Cole Street and Myrtle Avenue.
“The reason is, the further we get to the end the fall, the worse chances there are for weather,” Borst said. “Even if the thing is not 100 percent complete, we’re going to go ahead and have that celebration.”
More details about the celebration are yet to come; Borst said to check out the Association’s Facebook page for additional information.
Fire lookout towers used to be common in the Pacific Northwest region, as more than 800 lookouts dotted the landscape in Washington and Oregon. Enumclaw itself had four towers: Mount Peak, Grass Mountain, Carbon Ridge and Point McDonald.
The first fire lookout tower to grace Mount Peak with its presence was built in 1929 by the state Department of Natural Resources.
In 1934, the tower was replaced by one built by the Washington Forest Fire Association, and the tower was demolished and rebuilt again by DNR so it could be staffed 24/7. That tower stayed in use until the summer of 1964, and was taken down in ‘66.
In anticipation of this replica tower being built, the Mount Peak Historical Fire Lookout Association brought Lin Thrune-Makela — the last employee to staff the Mount Peak tower — back up the mountain in 2016.
It was her job to stay vigilant against forest fires all day and all night for nearly the entire summer, she told the Courier-Herald, but it was also her responsibility to relay messages: Thrune-Makela would get a call on a landline from the DNR office in town, and she’d have to radio the message to rangers in the field.
Hiking wasn’t very popular back then, she recalled, but she did receive her fair share of visitors, as the peak wasn’t as isolated as other fire lookouts were.
“You felt like you were part of the community – you were still part of the world,” she said.
For her efforts, Thrune-Makela pulled in $200 a month (worth $1,765 now), though she still had to buy all her own food, which was delivered via ranger who drove to the tower in an Army-surplus Jeep.