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Lookout gets new lid

APPLEGATE — The insulated roof that made the Squaw Peak fire lookout a little more comfortable than most in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest almost proved to be its demise.

The fiberglass insulation that helped shield early- and late-season fire spotters over the past 73 years was overrun by mice with less-than-hygienic habits, leaving the roof about to collapse and the Forest Service with no cash to reclaim it.

"It's a magnet for mice," says Don Allen as he peruses the mouse remnants still permeating the lookout's interior ceiling. "We had to wear hazmat gear. We pulled out 480 gallons of insulation and mouse turds."

But the historic lookout atop Squaw Peak is getting a new lid, thanks to the likes of Allen, his Sand Mountain Society and their willingness to toil atop Pacific Northwest peaks to keep old lookouts surviving as pieces of wildfire prevention history.

The nonprofit society is in the midst of swapping out the failed roof with a historically consistent cedar shake one so the lookout can remain a working and tangible part of the U.S. Forest Service's efforts to quell wildfires. 

Allen and his small cadre of rotating volunteers work weekends on these lookouts for free and use largely donated or salvaged materials.

"Fire lookouts are really a nice symbol of resource protection," says Allen, 53, a general manager of a Portland electronics firm. "They're a symbol, I think, of conservation values."

Not only will this symbol be spared from going the way of dozens of other fire lookouts on the forest, it also will be shared.

Plans are to get the Squaw Peak Lookout, which already is on the National Register of Historic Places, on the short list of old lookouts and guard stations available for overnight rentals by the public on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, says Brian Long, the forest's recreation planner.

Long says it will have to go through an internal and public vetting process, including settling on a rental price, before it joins three other forest guard stations where the public can relive the life of a lookout for about $50 a night.

The Sand Mountain Society traces its roots to Southern Oregon in 1989 when Allen and a passel of other lookout-lovers asked to relocate the historic and abandoned lookout cabin from Whisky Peak on the then-Rogue River National Forest to Sand Mountain in the Willamette National Forest.

Since then, they have worked on 24 other lookouts throughout Oregon, including five on the Rogue River-Siskiyou, despite most of the work parties coming from the Willamette Valley.

That Whisky Creek project helped Allen forge a good working relationship with Jeff LaLande, who was the forest's archaeologist at the time. It remained after LaLande's retirement with replacement Janet Joyer and now with Long, so the group has an affinity to the forest, Allen says.

The Squaw Peak lookout — which is roughly 12 miles south of Ruch — traces its roots to 1943, when crews used horse trains to haul materials to build the lookout that was considered key to spotting fresh "smokes" after lightning storms in the Applegate Valley and beyond, says Joyer, who is retired and now serves on the society's board of directors.

It was in the heyday of fire lookouts when dozens and dozens of them dotted high forest peaks, Joyer says. This particular lookout was called an L-4, a prefab kit designed a decade earlier to get these 14-square-foot lookouts into tucked-away places.

"This is actually a unique building, one of four on the forest with this design," Joyer says.

Construction with insulation was even more rare, Joyer says. Squaw Peak likely got insulation because, at around 5,000 feet, it was staffed earlier and later into the wildfire season, she says.

Allen and his ilk have worked most weekends to get the work done, logging about 35 man-days on the project that is, by lookout standards, some rather light lifting, he says.

"This one's actually in good shape," Allen says. "The windows are all here and nothing's been shot out."

They occasionally get visits from hikers interested in the project.

"People have left notes in a mouse trap asking us to call them so they can work on the lookout," Allen says.

He's interested in finding more volunteers, particularly in Southern Oregon where so many of the society's projects are.

"There's a lot of need out there and it's beyond our capacity," Allen says.

While lookouts have lost the battle with technology over utility, this one will remain staffed occasionally by the Forest Service at least while Long pursues adding it to the rental program, Long says.

Allen says he's plugged every entry should the mice decide to return so a trained spotter or an interested tourist can live the lookout life like it was seven decades ago.

"Whether they're used as fire lookouts or rentals is fine," Allen says. "The important thing is that the public still gets to enjoy them."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Bill Joy, left, and Don Allen of the Sand Mountain Society are restoring the historic fire lookout atop Squaw Peak. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta