Fire Lookout Museum is a priceless Northwest treasure

Jul 6, 2022, 11:30 AM
Most of Ray Kresek’s Smokey Bear collection was recently transferred to the Stevens County Historical Society’s museum in Colville, Washington. (Courtesy Stevens County Historical Society) A Smokey Bear poster Ray Kresek received from the US Forest Service as a child inspired a lifetime of Smokey Bear memorabilia collecting. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The lookout tower has been in Ray Kresek’s backyard since the 1980s; his adult son also now has a lookout tower in his backyard. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio) The museum also features a vintage US Forest Service fire weather station. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio) Ray Kresek’s father worked on lookout tower two-way radios in the 1940s, much like this one in the museum collection; a 1950s Smokey Bear highway sign is visible in the background. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The museum collection includes dozens of vintage signs; this is just a tiny portion. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Before two-way radios were practical, lookout towers depended on hardwired phones, so foresters strung thousands of miles of wire through the trees. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The museum includes a vintage lookout tower and a former CCC building, both from the 1930s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Ray Kresek and a portion of the collection that comprises the Fire Lookout Museum. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Ray Kresek and the lookout tower in his Spokane backyard. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Wildfire season is here, and though – knock on tinder-dry wood – the Puget Sound area has not yet seen the flames and smoke of previous summers, there’s no question that conditions could shift at any moment, as they have so many times over the decades.

This past Saturday was the first annual “National Wildland Firefighter Day” – a commemoration created by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho to honor the men and women who battle wildfires. It was also a perfect day to visit the Fire Lookout Museum in Spokane.

At their peak in the 1940s during World War II, there were something like 8,000 fire lookout towers in the United States – including 682 here in Washington – usually staffed with one or sometimes two people keeping their eyes open for the first sign of a fire (or, during the war, of enemy aircraft). With changes in technology and the economics of public land management, there are just a few dozen lookouts left in Washington nowadays, and only some are still staffed.

One lookout tower that remains is in a backyard in Spokane behind the home of an author, historian, and retired firefighter named Ray Kresek.

Kresek pieced the lookout together in the early 1980s from the ruins of seven separate lookout towers, not long after the time when the US Forest Service and other land managers were demolishing or burning down old lookouts which were increasingly deemed obsolete and were thought to pose a risk to curious hikers. Right after he built it, Kresek trucked his lookout around to a couple of big county fairs in Washington and Oregon. It was a popular attraction that drew more than a million visitors, and it was great place from which to sell copies of Kresek’s book, the definitive bible of regional lookout tower history, Fire Lookouts of the Northwest. That book, by the way, is out of print, hard to find, and – when it can be found – expensive (selling online for as much as hundreds of dollars).

The tower and a separate building and a huge collection of artifacts are part of the Fire Lookout Museum, which Kresek founded and incorporated as a non-profit organization. The museum is, literally, in Kresek’s backyard in suburban Spokane. It’s not really open to the public so much anymore, but journalists, history buffs and other wildfire enthusiasts are sometimes able to contact Ray Kresek via the museum’s website and score an invitation to visit.

Along with the tower and the building, Kresek’s yard is filled with old signs, fire-fighting tools and gear, and all kinds of amazing artifacts related to wildfires, Smokey Bear, the Forest Service and state forest agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

As Kresek led a tour, one of the first stops was an old outdoor phone. Fire lookouts predate radio, but the firewatchers needed to be able to communicate with each other when they saw something. Thus, in the early 20th century, foresters strung miles and miles of wire through the woods to connect lookout towers via what amounts to a rudimentary “party line,” where everyone connected to the system could listen to every call.

“This is a typical field phone along the trails back as early as 1910,” Kresek said, lifting the receiver and turning a crank. “And it still works. The old phone system [required a distinctive ring to identify individual users, so] if your call was one ‘long’ and three ‘shorts’” – at this point, Kresek stopped speaking and cranked the phone to make the bell sound one long ring, followed by three short rings – “You answered it . . . and 18 other people would listen.”

From where the phone is mounted on a pole, it’s a short climb up a staircase to the lookout, officially a model L-6, designed in the 1930s, measuring eight-feet square, with windows all around, and a “fire finder” mounted in the center of the floor. Fire finders are at the heart of the entire premise of a lookout tower and its reason to be: to help accurately pinpoint the location of smoke and fires. It’s about the size and shape of a big pizza pan, and it has map attached.

“You look through this tiny little slit here,” Kresek said. “And at the other end is a horsehair, and the middle of the map is you” – where the lookout tower is located. “So, as you’re sighting the smoke that’s going to be between here and here somewhere, it’s up to you to determine the location of it.”

“That’s how fire finder works,” Kresek continued. “It’s 360 degrees of a compass, and when you report to the dispatcher, you report your azimuth, which is degrees of the compass, and an estimated distance, how far it is away from you, which, which hill it’s on, how many hills away from you.”

“And if there’s another lookout [who can also see the smoke or fire], you’re fortunate because you can do a cross shot” to triangulate and even more accurately determine the location of the distant smoke or flame.

Why does Ray Kresek care enough about lookout tower history to host a museum in his backyard for going on 40 years?

Kresek is now 85 years old. He was born in Olympia, and retired decades ago after a long career with the Spokane Fire Department. When he was a kid, his dad drove all over the state installing and repairing two-way radios in fire lookout towers, and young Ray often went along for the ride. When he was 12, he and a friend built a trail and a campground in the woods, and the Forest Service sent him a Smokey Bear poster as a thank-you – which was something of a watershed moment for the young future firefighter and museum founder.

Simply put, fascination with all things wildfire and wildfire fighting goes way back for Ray Kresek.

“I started on a lookout when I was 16 and it kind of grew with me,” Kresek said. “But I wanted to fight fire all my life, so I did that for 35 years. And then, when I retired out of the Spokane Fire Department, I went back up on a lookout for a year.”

“It’s just been in my blood all my life,” Kresek continued. “I guess it’s just one of those things, you know, you say ‘Once a lookout, always a lookout,’ and other people say, ‘You see one lookout, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

Though he is 85, Ray Kresek has no immediate plans to slow down. However, to his credit, he does have a succession plan in place so that the work of the Fire Lookout Museum will continue once he does decide to retire from what became his decades-long second fire-related career. Ultimately, the lookout tower and many related artifacts will be moved to the Priest Lake Museum not too far away in Idaho.

Carlos Landa is board president of the Priest Lake Museum. It’s clear that Landa and his fellow board members and the other volunteers at Priest Lake Museum appreciate Ray Kresek, admire his landmark book, and are thrilled the Spokane lookout tower will someday be headed their way.

Landa says that the lands around Priest Lake have a rich history of lookout towers, and the community holds a special place in Ray Kresek’s wildfire-fighting heart. He also said that under normal circumstances, moving the tower out of Kresek’s yard and trucking it over to Idaho might be expensive, but the museum’s roots – and community connections – run deep.

“We’ve still got a bunch of old boys out there,” Landa said, “and when it comes time to get something done, we’ll get it done.”

If Kresek ever gets lonely for his old lookout tower, the Priest Lake Museum folks will happily welcome him for visits. But Kresek doesn’t have to even go that far, since his son lives nearby, and also has an old lookout tower in his backyard. For the Kreseks, lookout towers are a family affair.

Along with the lookout tower and firefighting equipment, Ray Kresek also collected Smokey Bear memorabilia – it all began with that poster he got from the Forest Service when he was a kid. That led to collecting all things Smokey – including thousands of artifacts and ephemera that are believed to surpass in number and quality every other Smokey-related collection in the world, including that of the Smokey Bear Historical Park in New Mexico.

In preparation for Kresek’s eventual retirement, most of the Smokey artifacts have already been moved up to Colville, where much of it is now displayed by the Stevens County Historical Society in their Smokey Bear Room.

“He kept the things that were very special to him and things that were given to him by his family members,” said Katie Tolin, curator for the museum. “But it was considered the best Smokey collection [and while] we don’t have all of what he had, it’s still a pretty extensive collection.”

Other than a few dozen pieces still in his basement, Kresek’s Smokey materials – toys, posters, vintage costumes, souvenirs – are on display now in at the volunteer-run museum Colville, which is open every day during the summer.

In hearing Ray Kresek’s stories and learning more about the work of operating fire lookout towers, it seems that lookouts are not unlike lighthouses – remote, solitary, and isolating for the people who do long stretches of critical but solo work in those settings.

Is there something that people who are attracted to working in lookout towers have in common?

“They’re a little strange,” Kresek said, carefully – he clearly has deep respect for the profession and the people, and has an obvious love for the gear. “They’re definitely loners, because some of these lookouts, they go up on their mountain and they don’t see another soul all summer. It takes a certain type of people.”

“When I was a lookout,” Kresek continued. “I enjoyed my solitude for up to a week. After that, I wanted to see somebody because there’d be something to tell them, you know, ‘Hey, I saw a bear,’” he said, laughing.

Kresek is a treasure, whose love of wildfire history – along with that need of his to tell somebody what he saw – has made the Fire Lookout Museum he created a priceless part of the Northwest that will live on for decades to come.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Fire Lookout Museum is a priceless Northwest treasure