What does a Fire Lookout do?

D. Jeffress

A fire lookout typically monitors a fire-prone area of land from a tall watchtower to avert potential disasters. If she notices smoke or flames, she immediately identifies the location of the blaze and contacts firefighters stationed nearby. The fire lookout also records information about weather and wind patterns to help firefighters plan emergency response procedures. Lookouts often work year-round in many different settings, including national parks, forests, remote mountain ranges, and wildlife reserves. During times of peak danger, it is common for a crew of fire lookouts to work around the clock in shifts.

A fire lookout may monitor forests for signs of fire.
A fire lookout may monitor forests for signs of fire.

The primary goal of a fire lookout is to prevent wildfires by identifying hazards and preparing for action. Stationed in a watchtower, the fire lookout can observe a large area of land with the aid of binoculars and surveillance cameras. She usually has access to the Internet and weather-monitoring equipment so that she can recognize potentially dangerous conditions. If she notices campers practicing unsafe activities, such as leaving a campfire burning unattended, she can speak with offenders in person or notify forest rangers. The lookout also takes preventive measures by recommending that a certain number of firefighters and equipment be available at base camps during fire seasons.

Fire lookouts might work all year watching for forest fires.
Fire lookouts might work all year watching for forest fires.

If smoke is spotted, the fire lookout quickly relays information to headquarters using cell phones or two-way radios. She uses landmarks, the sun's angle to the horizon, and global positioning system software to inform firefighters of the exact location of a blaze. While emergency response crews make their way to the fire, the lookout tracks changes in wind and watches the movement of flames. For a fire that spread wildly, she may request that airplanes fly over to dump extinguishing liquid or foam.

The fire lookout remains a key member of the emergency response team until the blaze is gone. She provides weather updates, records the progress of fire crews, and speaks with the media to keep the public informed. After a fire is extinguished, the fire lookout surveys the damage and carefully watches the charred land for several days to ensure that it does not reignite.

Individuals do not need extensive education or training to become fire lookouts in most settings. Some professionals decide to pursue two- or four-year degrees in fire science, geology, or environmental science to better prepare for the job. New workers learn about the different types of monitoring equipment and emergency procedures by assisting experienced lookouts. Many fire lookouts are trained firefighters as well, and can actively help out in the event of a widespread blaze. In areas of wilderness where government funding for fire prevention is low or unavailable, concerned people often volunteer to work as lookouts.

A fire lookout may survey damage done by a fire.
A fire lookout may survey damage done by a fire.

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Discussion Comments


When I was in school one my friend's fathers worked as a fire lookout. My friend and I got to go up in the tower and look out. It is unbelievable how far you can see up in one of those towers. It's a great view, and you really can spot a fire of any significant size.

For the longest time after I went up in the tower, I wanted to have my friend's father's job. I thought being up in the tower all alone and just looking out at nature would be a great way to earn a living.


@Drentel - Whenever you burn anything in the yard that might create a lot of smoke you should call the fire marshal or forestry agent or whoever is in charge of looking out for fires where you are burning. Where I live, if you don't call the authorities and the fire trucks are sent out then you are more often than not going to have to pay a fine.

Also, when you call the fire marshal he will let you know what the wind conditions are going to be and whether it is okay to set a fire on that particular day.


I can remember the farmer who lived near us when I was a kid burning his woods to clear the brush. He did this one year and there was smoke all over the place. Before long, there were fire engines coming for all over the place racing to the fire.

One of the workers in the county fire lookout tower had spotted the smoke and they thought it was a forest fire that was out of control. It was pretty exciting to me and the other kids, but I don't think the farmer was too happy to see all of the fire trucks and all of the people coming to see what was going on.

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