‘Lightning Bill’ Austin returns to his favorite lookout
By Ann McCreary
In just about a month, “Lightning Bill” Austin will return to his home away from home — the fire lookout atop Goat Peak — and he couldn’t be happier.
When he hikes with his two dogs up to the lookout tower above Mazama at the end of June, it will mark his 21st summer at Goat Peak, where he welcomes visitors while keeping a watchful eye out for smoke in the forests that stretch into the distance.
“I love Goat Peak and I can’t wait to get back there,” Austin said this week. “I’m happy on any mountain top but some I love more than others.”
Last summer Austin had hoped to celebrate his 20th anniversary at Goat Peak but the U.S. Forest Service assigned him to Leecher Mountain Lookout. The reason — which proved all-too true — was that the area seen by the Leecher Mountain Lookout was considered at greater risk of a major fire.
Austin began his summer at Leecher Lookout on June 17 and one month later, on July 17, the Forest Service ordered a helicopter to pluck him off the mountain as the Carlton Complex Fire roared toward the lookout.
Roads leading to Leecher Lookout were closed by wildfire, so the only way to get Austin out was by air. Because there wasn’t a suitable landing site at the top of 5,000-foot-high Leecher Mountain, Austin had to hike with his two dogs more than a mile down the mountain to where the helicopter had found a spot to land.
“I’d never been evacuated before and had been a lookout for 25 summers. It was a little exciting; especially when I figured out there was fire all around me and the roads were blocked. That fire was moving! I was fine until I realized the helicopter couldn’t get close to me,” Austin recalled.
After being evacuated he was given a day off, but couldn’t return to his home in Bridgeport because roads in and out of the valley were closed by the fires, so he spent the day with friends in the Methow Valley.
The next day he made the familiar climb to Goat Peak, where he was assigned for the rest of the summer and celebrated his 20th anniversary in his favorite spot after all.
“Mike Liu [Methow Valley district ranger] even packed a cake up and made it official,” Austin said. “I was pretty happy to go back. That’s my home. That’s where I’m happiest.”
Austin, who will be 60 this summer, has worked at other lookouts around the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest during his 25 years as a lookout, but most enjoys the high elevation and cool temperatures of 7,000-foot-high Goat Peak.
And he loves visiting with people who make the steep 2.5-mile climb up the mountain to see him. In a description of the hike to Goat Peak, Washington Trails Association says Lightning Bill “has developed a bit of a cult following” during his many years at the Goat Peak fire lookout.
Some of his “regulars” made the trip up Leecher to visit him and his dogs during the month he was there last summer, but it was not nearly as busy as Goat Peak, Austin said.
“In the month at Leecher I got about 50 visitors. I get that in one day on Goat Peak; 80 to 100 people on a busy day,” he said.
Liu said Austin’s knowledge and reputation are a valuable part of his work as a lookout, along with his familiarity with the landscape and his sharp eyes.
“The benefit, in addition to fire detection, is the public information he can provide. He’ll be sharing those lookout stories and inspiring the next generation of lookouts,” Liu said.
When the hikers go home at the end of the day, Austin has his two dogs — Thunderdog Shilo and Blaze — to keep him company. Thunderdog Shilo is 14 and Blaze is 9, so the hike up to the lookout next month may be slow.
“We’ll take our time and we’ll get there,” he said.
When he’s off duty, Austin plans to work on watercolor paintings and his newest artistic interest — face painting. “I’m going to take a mannequin head up there and will paint that after hours,” he said.
Goat Peak is the only lookout tower in the Methow Ranger District that will be staffed this summer, although two other lookout towers — Leecher (which was not damaged in the Carlton Complex Fire) and Lookout Mountain — will have their shutters open and be ready for temporary staffing, Liu said.
“If we get a lightning bust, in addition to aerial detection we can put a lookout there,” he said.
Two other lookout towers in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest — Bonaparte near Tonasket and Sugarloaf in Chelan County — will be staffed this summer.
The Forest Service has increasingly used planes in recent years to spot fires after a lightning storm, making fire lookouts less necessary. Because the planes only fly when needed, they are cost-efficient. Cell phones have also helped fire detection because citizens can call to report a fire quickly
In some cases, though, the eyes of a lookout can’t be replaced, Liu said. A plane may fly over a smoldering fire and not see smoke, or it may not be safe to send a plane up when there are thunderheads and lightning.
Austin is predicting that he’ll be busy this summer watching for fires from Goat Peak, which looks down the Methow Valley, up the Chewuch drainage and out over the North Cascades and into the Pasayten Wilderness.
“I do feel we’re going to get some wilderness fires this year. We didn’t get much snow this year, and that’s a few years in a row. I feel this summer our wilderness is in trouble. We’ve already gotten a few fires in the wilderness already. That’s not a good sign,” Austin said.
“I’ll do my best. Hopefully we won’t be too busy.”