By Ann McCreary
This summer would have been “Lightning Bill” Austin’s 20th anniversary as the U.S. Forest Service’s fire lookout atop Goat Peak in Mazama.
Instead, he’ll be taking his sharp eyes, two dogs and loyal fans to the Leecher Mountain Lookout, southeast of Twisp.
The Forest Service has decided that staffing the Leecher Lookout would be a better use of firefighting resources this summer, and has assigned the new post to Austin — the only full-time seasonal fire lookout remaining in the Methow Ranger District.
A fixture at Goat Peak for 19 years, Lightning Bill is known for welcoming visitors who made the steep 2.5-mile hike up to the lookout tower.
“I’ll invite them in during a lightning bust. It’s an experience they will never forget, especially the kids,” Austin said.
Though initially disappointed to learn he would be leaving his longtime post on Goat Peak, Austin said he quickly adjusted to the idea.
“Leecher’s beautiful too. I’ve got new country to learn. If I could have gotten 20 years in at Goat Peak, no problem. But I didn’t quite make it. Nineteen is a nice round number,” Austin said this week.
In fact, Austin added, the Leecher Mountain Lookout is a special place for him. “Leecher was my very first lookout I went to with my family when I was 5 years old,” he said.
“I’m kind of excited about it now. It doesn’t matter which mountain top I’m on, I’m at home on a mountain top.”
Leecher, at 5,000 feet elevation, overlooks territory that is at greater risk of a major forest fire than the area viewed from 7,000-foot Goat Peak, said Methow District Ranger Mike Liu.
The region around Leecher has a substantial amount of ponderosa pine trees and dry grasses and shrubs — a combination that produces fast-moving wildfires. “Being lower in the valley, it has more of that dry forest” than the area around Goat Peak further north, Liu said.
In addition, significant areas of forests surrounding Goat Peak have been burned in recent years by major fires, including the Tripod, Thirtymile and Farewell fires, Liu said.
Changes in detection
A committee of Forest Service officials from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which includes the Methow Ranger District, evaluated fire lookouts over the past year and made recommendations about staffing. The decision to staff Leecher came from that process, Liu said.
The Forest Service will staff some other lookouts in the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest, and plans to keep others, including Goat Peak, open and ready to be staffed on an as-needed basis, Liu said. “In the event of a storm we could send someone to staff it,” he said.
The Forest Service increasingly uses planes to spot fires after a lighting storm, Liu said. “Flights are cost-effective. You’re only paying for them when they are taking place, which is generally after a lightning storm,” he said.
In addition, the proliferation of cell phones has helped in fire detection because people are able to call to report fires quickly.
“Between the general public calling in and aircraft, there’s a feeling that the need for lookouts for detection has really gone the way of the dinosaur,” Liu said.
However, Liu added, there are still times when eyes of a lookout can’t be replaced. “A lot of times a plane may fly over a smoldering fire and not see smoke,” Liu said. And, he added, it may not be safe to send a plane into the air when there are thunderheads and lightning.
“I love the competition between the planes and me,” Austin said. “Whenever I hear they’re up in the air I’m really watching for fires. Many times I spot one right after they fly over.”
As he did at Goat Peak, Austin will bring his two dogs with him when he arrives for the season in mid-June. The Leecher tower, about 40 feet high, is about twice as tall as the Goat Peak lookout, Austin noted. He’s hoping 13-year-old Shilo and 8-year-old Blaze can make the climb. “If the dogs can’t make it we will fix something up,” he said.
Leecher and Goat Peak lookouts have been rebuilt in the past decade, including installation of improved lightning safety systems consisting of multiple lightning rods that are grounded by cables. Austin said he used to sit on his bed during storms and stay away from anything metal, but the new system eliminated the little shocks he used to feel if the tower was hit.
“It took all the fun out of it,” he said.
Austin, who lives in Bridgeport when it’s not fire season, said he expects Leecher to begin drawing more visitors as people make the trek up to see him. He said more than 2,000 people visited him at Goat Peak each summer, and he stays in touch with a Facebook page. The road to the Leecher Mountain Lookout can be driven all the way up, although the last mile or so is rough and may be blocked by a gate, requiring a short hike.
“My so-called fan club, they’ll follow me,” said Austin. “Leecher doesn’t get very many visitors, but it will now.”
That prediction appears likely to prove accurate, said Kathy Busse, a fire management officer at the Methow Ranger District. “People have been calling wondering when he’s going to be coming,” Busse said.
In addition to his 19 years at Goat Peak, Austin worked six seasons at other lookouts. His enthusiasm for the job hasn’t waned over those 25 years.
“I’ll be 59 years old this summer. My thought is, why not go for 20 [years] on Leecher? If I can stay in shape, I can do it,” Austin said.
“I’m still doing what I love. It’s so much fun. I watch those clouds roll in and I’m on top of the world.”