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Above it all: Man has spent almost 5 decades as a fire lookout

John Crawford
Posted at 5:45 PM, Aug 01, 2023

MISSOULA - Fire lookout towers dot the western United States.

While it's a fun summer adventure to spend a night in one here in Montana, for others, it's a big responsibility during fire season — especially for one man who's spent way more time than just a night in lookouts.

John Crawford, who currently lives in Lolo, has spent his past 48 summers as a fire lookout in Idaho.

Young John Crawford
John during his first lookout season.

Crawford begins his book, 'Above it All', which details his adventures by paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau; "I went to the mountaintop because I wished to live deliberately".

He chose journal entries from 1974, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2020, and 2022 to fill the following pages.

“Through my descriptions, I put the reader right up there with me at the lookout," he stated.

MTN's Emily Brown got the chance to meet Crawford and hear some of his stories from Indian Hill and Sundance lookouts firsthand.

“The first thing I do, I just stand out on the catwalk after no one around and I’ll yell out to the wilderness: ‘I am free'," Crawford said followed by a laugh.

“I average about 18 fires a year and so times uh how many years I’ve been a lookout, that’s over 600 fires.”

Judy Crawford
Judy on clothes washing day at Indian Hill in the 70s.

Crawford’s first year on a lookout was back in 1974 and coming with him that first summer — and every summer until 1993 — was his partner Judy.

“Everything was brand new. It was kind of learn by the seat of your pants,” he explained.

As he adjusted to the day-to-day of lookout life, he said living slowed down. On page 27 of his book he wrote,

Our days were becoming more attuned with nature as our lookout season wore on... keeping track of the elk and deer residents, the eagles, hawks ravens, and turkey buzzards that soared above the ridge, the incredible sunrises over Montana and the equally beautiful sunsets over Oregon! Every day I kept up my mission to learn the country before me."
John Crawford, Above it All

Crawford told MTN, “It’s just your whole life is centered around that 12 by 12 lookout and a little bit of catwalk."

He’d walk with binoculars around the catwalk, observing and studying the land he’s tasked with watching over.

“You notice something different. That’s how you find fires, you know your country so well.” Crawford knew the names of each of the peaks and how each drainage normally looked at different times of the day.

Osborne fire finder
The fire finder Crawford would use to pinpoint fires.

Not only would fires break the calmness of being in nature, but also storms.

Crawford excitedly said, “When you’re on a mountaintop, you’re exposed to these storms and the lightning that’s gonna hit you and it does hit the tower. I’ve been hit at least twice a summer and it is hair raising literally.”

During a lightning storm, Crawford would have to stand or sit on a lightning stool with glass insulators. A copper wire on the outer walls of the lookout would ground the lighting after it hit the tower.

Lookout lightning
Lightning makes contact with a nearby ridge.

“If you’re not on a lightning stool you’ll get a bad shock but you won’t get electrocuted. Now, if you’re outside the lightning net, if you’re on the catwalk, and you got struck, you’d be fried.”

Year after year, Crawford is eager to return to his lookouts.

“I feel a reunion with the mountain top. It just seems that [the] lookout actually becomes an old friend. And when I go up there it’s like I’m seeing an old friend again.”

Not only is his reunion with the lookout tower itself but also with the Canadian gray jays he can call to eat from his hand and mountains he has come to love.

John and gray jay
John calls Canadian gray jays "his little buddies".

“Oh, I’m just thankful for everything in my life.”

Crawford even made 5-foot-tall models of Indian Hill and Sundance. It took him eight months to complete the towers. They are extremely detailed.

Model lookout
Indian Hill model lookout with Fort Missoula's Sliderock lookout in the back.