Oregon fire lookout enjoys solitary job

 Oregon fire lookout enjoys solitary job
The new lookout is a standard 1936 L-4 with a concrete understory was built Aug. 8, 1950.

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Clayton Weir has a job that would make many people jealous. He works from home. He makes his own hours. He has a beautiful view and, most of the time, it is pretty low stress.

Weir is a fire lookout on the Umatilla National Forest. He spends the summer alone — except for his trusty dog Jack — on a high mountaintop overlooking ridge upon ridge of forested wilderness.

"I enjoy the quiet, peaceful, solitude," the 66-year-old man from Battle Ground, Wash., said. "All that is nice."

The lookout he mans is south of Dayton, Wash., and nearly straight east from Walla Walla.

It's called Table Rock Lookout. The U.S. Forest Service started it in 1929 with a cabin just south of where the lookout is today. The live-in cabin, which sits on top of a concrete base, was built in 1949. It sits between the Mill Creek watershed to the west and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness to the east. | Photo Gallery: Historic photos of Table Rock Lookout

Weir can see Walla Walla and wheat fields past the ridges to the west. To the east he can see the Wallowa Mountains and, on a clear day, all the way to the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho.

He is about 10 miles from the Bluewood ski area and an hour's drive from Dayton. On his days off he heads to Walla Walla to wash laundry and take a shower.

His neighbors include a pack of coyotes that yip some nights, a bear down the way — Weir described him as a "little fellow" — and the occasional elk.

"People ask, 'Aren't you afraid to live out here by yourself?'" Weir said. He doesn't think much of it. "I think the idea of living alone is foreign to most people."

Weir isn't totally alone. He checks in with the La Grande dispatch center four times a day. He calls his wife, Stephanie, on a cell phone about once a day — a new cell tower at Bluewood has greatly increased reception — and tourists come up to check out the lookout every so often.

Weir doesn't mind talking to people. He was an elementary school teacher most of his life. In fall, he used to trade his summer of silence for a frantic classroom full of fifth-graders.

"I'd get a culture shock, going from this setting to all of a sudden with kids and everything that goes along with that," he said. "It was a change of pace."

Weir was 21 when he first manned a fire lookout. He worked for two summers in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington while attending graduate school.

One year his wife accompanied him.

Since then he has been in lookouts at Mount Hood, Kanisku National Forest in Northern Idaho, and now on the Umatilla National Forest.

During his early years as a teacher he was able to spend the summers as a lookout. When he and his wife raised their family, child care duties took over his summers. After the kids were grown and out of the house, he returned to lookouts. Now that he is retired, he still enjoys the part-time job.

The most exciting time he ever had was during a big lightning storm in Idaho. In that one storm, he spotted 21 fires.

"That was the biggest storm I've seen," he said.

Those fires burned 43,000 acres.

Weir had to evacuate his post. He drove out and came back later to find the blaze had burned right up to his lookout but didn't take the building.

"It was quite a spectacle," Weir said. "Those are the things you remember for the rest of your life."

Aside from those extraordinary situations, for the most part Weir's job is pretty laid back. He gets up at around 6:30 or 7 a.m. and takes care of breakfast and cleans house, then starts work at 9:30 by calling in on the radio.

About every 10 minutes Weir takes his binoculars and walks the porch around the lookout. It is easier to see outside, away from the glare of the five windows on each side of the square building.

Weir has trained his eyes to spot smoke in the Blue Mountains, where its namesake haze often appears as smoke. He has also learned how to tell the difference between a field fire far off and a forest fire just over the next ridge.

"You spend a good part of your day just looking and watching," Weir said.

To locate the spot where a trail of smoke comes from, Weir uses the same piece of equipment lookouts have had for a century: the Osborne Firefinder. It looks a bit like a giant compass.

It has a sight through which Weir can zero in on a smoke plume. By tradition, the crosshairs of the sight is made of horsehair, even though there are many substitutes available in the 21st century.

On the face of the compass is a map with Table Rock Lookout in the center. Weir measures how far away the fire is with a metallic ruler across the center. Each time he locates a fire, he marks it on his map. By the second week of August, he had eight dots on the map.

"That's eight more than last year," Weir said.

The firefinder, and the lookout itself, are perhaps the oldest items at Table Rock. There are a few other relics. Above the Osborne hangs an old, fist-sized insulator. A system of such insulators used to hold phone lines leading to the lookout. It is shaped like a big "O." The wire ran inside the O, with a lot of slack so if a branch fell on the line, it wouldn't break.

On the other side of the coin, the lookout has many uncommon amenities, Weir said.

Weir is happy with a propane stove, refrigerator, a new outhouse and water in square containers.

"This place has everything except running water," he said.

He can charge battery-powered devices, like his radio, with power from a solar panel on top of the roof.

This year Weir was especially tickled to have a very 21st-century piece of equipment: a Kindle e-book. While he used to bring a box full of books, he brought the lightweight electronic device this year with about 10 downloaded e-books.

While some people might call Weir's lifestyle primitive, he is quite comfortable with it.

"It's just so peaceful," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.