Thunderheads begin to form above Mount Shasta Tuesday afternoon, signaling the possibility of lightning that evening. The photo was taken at the Soda Mountain fire lookout, one of only two staffed full-time by the Oregon Department of Forestry in its Southwest Oregon District. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Fire-watcher era nears end

The fluffy, white, cottontail clouds floating up along the California state line early Tuesday afternoon didn't concern Ken Struck.

But give them a couple of hours to rise high into menacing anvil shapes and they would have his full attention.

"About 5:30 or 6 o'clock or so in the evening, that's when the lightning cells start coming to life," said Struck, 75, who, along with his wife, Colleen, is in his 24th consecutive season as fire lookout atop Soda Mountain a dozen miles east of Ashland.

Soda Mountain and Little Grayback Mountain on the east side of the Illinois Valley are the last fire lookouts staffed full time by the Oregon Department of Forestry in its Southwest Oregon District.

The department, which once staffed a dozen fire lookouts in Jackson and Josephine counties, installed cameras atop Tallowbox Mountain overlooking the Applegate Valley in 2009 after vandals destroyed that historic lookout. The cameras rotate 360 degrees and are monitored through a bank of TV screens back at the district office in Central Point.

Like other districts, officials here are looking at installing more cameras at remote lookout sites in the future to reduce costs. The district staffs some of its other fire lookouts during times of extreme fire danger.

Atop Soda Mountain, which rises 6,091 feet above sea level, Struck acknowledges times have changed since he spent his first summer on the mountain.

"I think you are looking at the end of an era in terms of staffed lookouts," said Struck, who retired as a captain with the Medford Fire Department after 25 years.

But he believes humans are still a good option on a lookout.

"You can't call up and ask a camera what a fire is doing," he said.

Struck is a well-known fixture on Soda Mountain known for his expertise, said district spokesman Brian Ballou, a veteran firefighter.

"As long as Ken is able to work up there, we'll likely have him up there on the lookout," Ballou said. "Soda Mountain, with its great panoramic view, is one of those lookouts that would be hard to replace.

"And Ken has such knowledge of the area — he knows every gulch and holler around," he added.

Built in 1933, the lookout is in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.

Struck's first fire season on the mountain seared in him a deep respect for lightning storms. He can tell you about the southern sky turning black on the evening of Aug. 30, 1987.

"Those storm cells were lined up like soldiers," he recalled. "One would move in, throw down some strikes and move on. Then the next one would come in. Pretty soon, the whole world was on fire."

When the fire season finally ended in mid-November 1987, some 150,000 acres — about 230 square miles — were burned by the lightning-caused fires in the two counties. The biggest was the Silver fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres in the Siskiyou portion of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

This fire season has started a little slower than most, he said.

"We didn't come up until July 1st this year — the wet spring and the budget held us up a little," he said, noting they usually arrive in mid-June and stick around until mid-October.

Like all fire lookouts, Struck spends most of his days using a pair of binoculars to scan the forests for signs of smoke. He knows the difference between a water dog that is nothing more than mist rising out of a forest following a summer shower and a wisp of smoke from a smoldering tree struck by lightning.

"Smokes can lay around for seven days or so, just smoldering before they take off," he said. "It's usually either instantly it takes off or a week or so."

He pinpoints the location of a smoke with a firefinder, a device using a circular map and a sighting instrument.

"You just look through it like a rifle sight and get the exact location of the smoke," he said.

Southwestern Oregon has been relatively fortunate with most of the lightning activity south of the state line thus far this summer, Struck said.

"The other night we had a solid streak of fire coming at us," he said of a lightning storm. "But when it hit the border, it just fizzled out."

However, he was searching for smokes after a lightning cell hit eastern Jackson County Monday night.

"We took six or seven strikes here on Emigrant Ridge but I haven't picked up any smokes yet," he said after scanning the area just east of Emigrant Lake with his field glasses.

As he predicted, the clouds had grown into rumbling storm cells by Tuesday evening.

"If my health holds out, and they'll have me, I'd like to continue for a year or two more," he said. "It's pretty hard to get tired of this view."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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