“KOD-426, Squaw Butte, 10-13.”
I haven’t heard Grandma and Grandpa use that radio call in 35 years, yet their twice-daily weather report to the Bureau of Land Management fire dispatch office in Boise from a fire lookout north of Emmett is seared in my mind.
For 38 years, my maternal grandparents, Helen and Orville “Friday” Blessinger, worked on Southern Idaho lookouts for the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. Besides Squaw Butte, they spotted fires from other lookouts, including the remote Packer John, between Banks and Smiths Ferry and Tripod on West Mountain, near Sagehen Reservoir north of Horseshoe Bend.
For hours at a time, they stood with a couple of pairs of old Navy binoculars fitted with Zeiss lenses — what Grandpa called field glasses — pressed to their eyes, looking for the telltale sign of smoke signaling a fire. When they saw smoke, they plotted the location using a device called an Osborne Firefinder. Then they called it in.
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The fire finder was invented by William Osborne, a Forest Service employee from Portland. It uses a map and a 360-degree sighting mechanism that allows the user to determine the precise location and altitude of a fire.
I was living in Southern California when, at age 7, I flew to Idaho to spend the summer of 1968 with my grandparents. Riding up to the butte for the first time on a gravel road, I watched as Grandpa stopped their old Willys Jeep, got out and aimed his pistol. Boom. As we looked at the remains of a rattlesnake, he told me that was why I would not be allowed to wander around on my own on the butte.
I quickly learned that Grandpa’s eyes were equally adept at spotting fires. One day, he spotted a small one near Vale. I couldn’t see anything, not even when I peered through the binoculars. He called in before a spotter much closer in Oregon noticed the fire.
Decades later, I still struggle to explain how he saw it. I think he knew what the landscape looked like when nothing was burning, so even though that fire had just started, something didn’t look right, and he was able to deduce that there was a fire.
“He could spot them fires before they took off,” said Howard Benge, 93, a retired Emmett dairy farmer who was my mom’s uncle.
Grandpa delighted in “stealing” fires that rightfully should have been reported by a closer lookout.
“That was his funnest game, to call it in before someone who was closer did. He loved it,” said James Sowell, 53, my younger brother, who lives in Boise and works at Micron Technology Inc. “Sometimes, someone else might have spotted it first, but Grandpa was faster at plotting its location and getting it reported.”
Organized fire detection began after the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres of land in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and western Montana. Eighty-seven people, mostly firefighters, lost their lives. The Forest Service, established five years earlier, began constructing mountaintop towers to detect blazes.
Before World War II, there were more than 8,000 lookouts nationwide. Nearly a third were in the Northwest, including 1,079 in Idaho, 912 in Oregon, 682 in Washington and 671 in Montana, said Ray Kresek, a Spokane resident who wrote “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest.”
Today, there are only 200 lookouts still manned in those four states, including 60 in Idaho, Kresek said. Modern technology, including cameras, satellite imagery and plane observation led to the closure of most lookouts.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression work-relief program in the 1930s, helped build about one-third of the Northwest towers, Kresek said.
“Lookouts in the early years were the backbone of the U.S. Forest Service,” said Kresek, who operates the Fire Lookout Museum in Spokane. “With more than 1,000 in Idaho, there was literally a lookout on almost every mountaintop.”
My grandparents’ families were Idaho pioneers who came across the Oregon Trail. I’m not sure how they got involved.
Emmett resident Glenn Morrow, a cousin to my late mother, Io Sowell, believes it may have been through Tom Cherry, an Ola resident who worked as a fire control officer for the Forest Service.
Cherry headed a crew that worked in the spring to clear downed trees, repair telephone lines that followed the trails and perform other trail maintenance in the Third Fork area north of Ola, where my grandparents and other family members had lived for many years. Grandpa, Morrow’s father, Charlie Morrow, and Burt Search, who later worked as a lookout fire spotter, were members of that crew.
“That’s what they did, more or less, until fire season came,” said Morrow, a retired electrician and former chief of Emmett’s rural volunteer fire department.
Tom Blessinger, 74, an Emmett and Ola rancher, said his Uncle Friday began his firefighting career in 1933, during an especially dry year. The Forest Service, through Cherry, sent him up to a “rock” west of Smiths Ferry and north of Pine Creek to keep watch for fires. The rock was later named Friday Butte in his honor, Tom Blessinger said.
Grandpa and Grandma worked on Tripod and Packer John before I was born in 1960. Packer John was demolished in 1980. All of my lookout memories of them were from 5,906-foot Squaw Butte, which has had a lookout since 1933.
“He knew the surrounding area so well because he’d herded sheep, cowboyed, walked and farmed all of that country, and he knew where all the individual farmers were,” Tom Blessinger said.
Grandpa was paid for four days of work a week there. Grandma was paid for the other three days. But both worked every day. They took turns manning a two-story tower built in 1953 (and torn down 28 years later) and calling in fires.
They entertained a constant stream of visitors, who ventured the 16 miles from Emmett on a partly paved, partly dirt road. In his research, Kresek found that Grandma and Grandpa had greeted 10,000 guests.
Grandma drove into Emmett twice a week to take care of household chores and to fill four 10-gallon dairy-milk cans with water. The cans were hauled to the butte in the back of the Jeep, with the water used for cooking, drinking and bathing. During the fire season, which typically started in late spring and lasted into October, my grandparents lived in a small camp trailer parked a few yards from the lookout.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, whose family owns the vast Van Deusen Ranch at the western base of Squaw Butte, told me Grandpa saved hundreds of acres of ranch land from being burned up by contacting ranch officials after notifying the BLM.
“He knew our land and vehicles so that he could direct us to where the fire was burning so we could start fighting it before the BLM crews got there,” Little said.
Grandpa, who died in 1991 at age 93, was like the “eyes in the sky” for ranchers, my brother James said.
“He’d call a rancher and tell him there was a break in his fence and the cattle were going through,” he said. “It wasn’t part of his job, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”
Grandpa was known for his booming voice. Listeners to BLM and Forest Service radios easily recognized it.
“Friday had a helluva voice on him, and they said he didn’t need a telephone,” Benge said, laughing. “He could holler from one lookout to another and talk to the guys.”
Doreen Mullins, who grew up in Montour, north of Emmett, has served as the Squaw Butte lookout since 2001. She said anyone with a knowledge of the lookout recognizes Grandpa’s name. Mullins remembers joking with him during a trip up to the butte when she was a teenager in the 1970s.
“I kidded him that here he was looking for fires from a butte that didn’t have any trees,” she said.
It doesn’t happen often, but I’ll give my brother James, who is nearly two years younger than me, the last word. I asked him why he thought Grandpa kept coming back to a job that kept him and Grandma, who died in 1999 at age 92, away from people for months at a time.
“I don’t think working in town at any job held any allure for him,” James said. “He loved it.”