Fire tower lookouts share their experiences

The fire spotter will use the Osbourne Firefinder to pinpoint smoke by looking through the rear sight and centering the crosshairs of the front sight on the smoke column. (Photo courtesy of Ron Moon, USDA Forest Service)

The men and women who have served as fire tower lookouts have played an important role in wildland firefighting throughout Forest Service history.  

Working in solitude, they scanned the horizon for smoke and alerted dispatchers to potential wildfires.  

Mark Twain National Forest still employs the use of fire lookouts to aid in early detection of wildfires. Forest Service employees are routinely posted at Czar Tower in Crawford County and Buick Tower in Iron County when high fire danger conditions exist.   

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a lookout? 

Bill Bodimer is Potosi Ranger Station’s customer service representative, but has been stationed in the towers many times over his 15-year career.  

Forest Service employees still use Czar Tower in Crawford County and Buick Tower in Iron County to detect smoke from wildfires. (Photo courtesy of Ron Moon, USDA Forest Service)

“Grab plenty of water, snacks, and a lunch, and don’t forget some warm clothes before you make the 100-foot climb to the tower cab,” he advised. 

“I always open the trap door in the floor very slowly, just in case some critter got in there! Turkey vultures have gotten in to Buick Tower and made a mess because the last person in there forgot to close the windows.” 

Ron Moon has worked more than 25 years in a variety of forest management positions at Mark Twain National Forest and has staffed the towers over the past six to eight years.  

“We have an Osbourne Firefinder inside the tower cab that we use to get a horizontal bearing of the smoke we see off in the distance,” Ron explained. “If I am up in Czar Tower and spot smoke, I’ll look through the rear sight of the Firefinder and line up the crosshairs with the smoke, and then send an azimuth reading to dispatch.  

“The lookout in Buick Tower will do the same thing and then dispatch can locate the wildfire where the two azimuth readings cross on the map.” 
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On average, lookouts are searching for smoke within an 8-10 mile area around the tower.  

“On a clear day, I can see the water towers in Cuba, Missouri, about 25 miles away,” exclaimed Bodimer. “They are small, but they shine and stick out on the landscape.”

The Osbourne Firefinder is a tool used in many fire towers. It was first developed by William Osbourne in 1915 and helps the lookout identify the direction and distance of the smoke from the fire tower. (Photo courtesy of Ron Moon, USDA Forest Service)

Moon recalled one day where he could see for a long distance. 

“I was seeing smoke on the horizon one day and called it in to dispatch. They sent firefighters out, but no fire could be found,” he said. 

“Believe it or not, I was seeing smoke from a fire at Peck Ranch, which was nearly 50 miles away as the crow flies and beyond the horizon. I was seeing the very top of the smoke column that was actually thousands of feet up in the atmosphere.”  

Weather conditions make for memorable experiences in the tower. Bodimer recalled a time he could see a storm moving toward him in the distance.  

“I started seeing lightning in the distance and about that time dispatch told me to get out of the tower,” said Bodimer. “They did not have to tell me twice because those towers are nothing by glorified lightning rods.”  

“Windy days can be rough,” remarked Moon. “The tower sways in the wind and you have to get used to it, but one day there were very high gusts. I really thought the tower was going to blow over and all I could think of is what I was going to do if it starts to go!”

The Potosi Ranger Station is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. You can reach us by calling (573) 438-5427. 

(Becky Ewing is the district ranger for the Mark Twain National Forest, Potosi-Fredericktown Ranger District. She can be reached by email at

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