On a very hot and smokey day, Billy and I drove up to Corral Hill Lookout in the Clearwater National Forest of Central Idaho. The air was so thick with smoke due to the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington at the time. We were a little nervous and a little excited – this was the first interview as part of our new project, Idaho Fire Lookouts.
We had a whole list of interview questions for Kevin, the lookout at Corral Hill – and oddly enough – an old neighbor of mine from North Idaho. We’d reconnected on Facebook after he saw one of my posts on the Staffed Fire Lookouts group. Bonus: Kevin was open to being our first interviewee!
Kevin worked as a wildland firefighter for 17 seasons, all on the Nez Perce/Clearwater at Fenn Ranger Station in the Moose Creek District. During the off-season, Kevin teaches 8th-grade health and 6th-grade PE. This was his 2nd season as the lookout on Corral Hill.
Yep – this is Kevin’s 20th year with the Forest Service! Congratulations Kevin!
As we pulled up to the lookout, we were immediately greeted by Kevin’s two daughters – the absolute cutest girls you’ve ever met. I’d barely gotten out of the car before they offered to show me their forts. I was quite the fort-building tomboy in my youth – I jumped on the chance to see their creations.
Almost an hour passed, running around the hilltop checking out forts and huckleberry bushes before I even made it up to the top of the lookout where Billy and Kevin were chatting and getting to know each other. The girls and I were starved, and so began a discussion on whether or not pickle-flavored sunflower seeds were gross or not. (I vote gross).
In other words, this was not your typical interview (sorry, Kevin).
Poor Kevin, by the time we began our interview with him, I think we’d already chatted his ear off more than he had bargained for. But he was a total champ, and despite what was clearly two very overeager goobers throwing questions at him, he answered every one of them with a smile on his face – although a side eye or two might have been thrown our way in the process.
Q. How did you get the job as a fire lookout?
A. “Just made a phone call. I applied on USA jobs to work on the district I fought fire on.”
Q. Why did you want to be a fire lookout?
A. “So I could get paid to go camping with my kids all summer.”
Cue my massive respect for what is so obviously a man that adores his children. And Kevin has made Corral Hill into a real home for his kids, with a basketball hoop, potted flowers, a tire swing, and forts scattered around the hilltop. Kevin’s girlfriend Kelsey and dog Ruger also join him often at Corral Hill during the summer – does life get any better that that?
Q. What is the highlight of working as a lookout?
A. “Being out here with my kids. There’s a lot of good things about it, but it’s the quality time that we’re stuck with each other 24 hours a day.”
Yeah – he had a total gleam in his eye when he said this. Meanwhile, the pickle-flavored sunflower seed conversation continued in the background. Have I mentioned this was NOT your average interview?
Q. Is this the first lookout job that you’ve had?
A. “Yes. I’d gone to Lookout Butte when I was a firefighter to look for fires or if a lookout was off on certain days and we had lightning. Or a fire in the area we’d go up.”
Q. Have you ever had to wrap a lookout tower?
A. “Yes. I took down Coolwater and helped wrap Gardner Lookout.”
Q. How long does it take to wrap a tower?
A. “FOREVER! It’s like Christmas but way worse. It’s horrible. Buildings are easier, but you itch like you
just insulated a house because it has a fiberglass backing. So you have your silver shining part like a fire shelter. It’s basically a little thinner than a fire shelter, and it comes on a 4-foot roll like tar paper. It’s heavy and itchy. Then after you take it off then, you have to go in with your leatherman and pull all the staples.”
Q. Have you ever had to evacuate Corral Hill Lookout?
Q. What’s the most interesting visitor that you’ve had at Corral Hill?
A. “The census taker. I think he was just killing a day.”
Q. What was your training like for the lookout tower job?
A. “I didn’t get a lot of official training after becoming a lookout. What I really used is my knowledge as a firefighter. Tom over at Coolwater helped me a lot, and then John Crawford at Indian Hill really helped me a lot.”
Q. How often do you talk with the other lookouts?
A. “It’s not as chatty as it used to be in the old days. I remember when fighting fire before Grangeville had a central dispatch, each ranger station, and their own dispatch. That’s who you checked in with, that’s who you checked out with. Lookout towers, they would be your night contact, so they could make a lot of overtime just by having the radio on. There used to be a lot of nighttime chatter, they’d get on the channel, and the lookouts would always be talking to each other. As a firefighter, we just wanted sleep. I don’t hear them talking anymore because a lot of us have cell coverage now.”
During our visit, Kevin showed us how the Osborne Fire Finder works, how he calls in a smoke, and how the water monitoring gauge works. Thank you so much, Kevin, for sharing your time, your stories, and answering all our unending questions!!