A view from above: Virginia Vincent has spent a career atop Montana’s Stark Lookout
January 15, 2009
By Dave Reese
“Ninemile, Ninemile this is Stark, over.”
The radio crackled to life on our kitchen table on a hot August night. The voice of Virginia Vincent came over the airwaves in her slow, east-coast drawl.
“Ninemile, Ninemile this is Stark, over.”
Since my father worked as a fire control officer for the Forest Service during the summer, there were many summer nights when Vincent’s voice called him away. The next sound usually was his truck turning out of the gravel driveway as he was off to find the smoke.
As the lookout on Stark Mountain, about 50 air miles west of Missoula, Vincent has spent all but one summer at Stark Lookout for the last 30 years, longer than any other lookout in Montana.
Vincent has watched as the landscape below her has changed.
Stark Mountain sits astride the Ninemile Divide, a span of heavily timbered mountains that runs east and west. To the north is the Ninemile Valley, a rural area that when I was growing up in nearby Alberton had only a dozen or so families. Now Ninemile has become broken into smaller tracts of ranchettes, people lured there by a rural lifestyle within easy driving distance of Missoula.
To the south of Stark is Interstate 90, a gray ribbon that winds far below the lookout along the Clark Fork river.
The road to Stark leads up off of I-90 from the tiny hamlet of Tarkio, about 20 miles east of Superior. The road to Stark is not one for the weak-at-heart. Hillsides logged years ago drop off precipitously from the winding, narrow dirt road that zigzags up the mountain. But once you’re near the lookout, the road winds in and out of heavily timbered, cool, dark draws where huckleberries big as your thumbnail grow and blue grouse as big as chickens waddle along the road.
The summer of 2000 was perhaps Vincent’s most hectic. An August lightning storm swept across Western Montana, sparking hundreds of wildfires. When I interviewed Vincent at her abode atop a 25-foot tower in late August, the skies over Stark had the pale-blue sheen of high summer. The surrounding mountains of the Ninemile Divide wore a coat of dark green the color of Vincent’s Forest Service dungarees. But the following week, when I flew over the lookout to shoot photographs, the sky was bloodshot and brooding, and the Ninemile Valley lay somewhere beneath a layer of gray haze.
Vincent sounded frazzled when I called her on my cell phone from the plane, as we circled the lookout. Her peaceful, idyllic summer had been turned upside down. Now rather than counting the various types of wildflowers around the lookout, she was busy identifying the location of smokes.
Normally the lifestyle of a lookout is fairly humdrum, she says. “You have to have lots of little projects. You can’t read all day, and we don’t fetch water or maintain phone lines, so you have to have things to keep you busy. But the idea is to not get so engrossed that you don’t look up from your work.”
An avid naturalist, she has recorded more than 60 different plant and wildflower species around the lookout, and she documents their daily progress, from blooming to seed. She has recorded 100 different types of birds that have stopped by her perch.
Living in a small cabin perched high off the ground on a wind-swept ridge can make for exciting times. Like the time about four years ago when a wind storm roared through eastern Washington and into Montana. “The wind blew 60 mph for two to three hours,” she recalls. “Every seam in this floor was moving.”
Then there was the time when lightning struck the outhouse, which sits in the woods below the lookout. Being struck by lightning in the insulated lookout is an experience in itself. “One time I could see the lightning bolts coming right up the ridge,” she says. “I saw a flash, a snap, and then a rifle shot in the middle of the room.”
Vincent spends about 60 days a year on Stark Lookout. She spent the summer of 1981 as a lookout in Oregon, a job that would have given her a longer fire season and different view from what she calls her “fishbowl” existence of living in a window-lined lookout. Management style on the Oregon forest just wasn’t the same as it was on the Ninemile Ranger District, she says, “So I told them to stick it.”
The pay for a lookout is moderate, but they have few expenses, Vincent explains. “You hope for over time.” She got it last summer.
A lookout must be able to differentiate between a fire — and what looks like a fire — before calling in ground or air support. In 30 years, Vincent has honed her skills at correctly identifying smoke.
For instance, bluish smoke is from a smoldering fire, but could also be exhaust from machinery, Vincent explains. Black smoke can be from a recently ignited fire, or from burning tires. White smoke tends to be from burning pine needles, and yellow or tan smoke indicates a grass fire. Road dust and “water dogs,” those columns of mist that hang in the air after a summer rain, can also be a false smoke.
Vincent relies mainly on her eyes and intuition for her job. The most technical piece of equipment is a decades-old alidade, a round table with crosshairs over a Forest Service map of the surrounding areas. Looking through the crosshairs out at the fire, she can pinpoint the fire’s location. She’s responsible for finding smokes within a 20-mile radius of the lookout, but with only four lookouts on the Lolo National Forest doing the job that 20 of them used to do, her coverage extends out to about 30 miles.
Vincent is fiercely independent, an attribute that fits nicely with the lookout lifestyle. She may not see anyone for weeks on end if she chooses not to come into Missoula to check on her cats or water her lawn. She does get visitors, though, who make the tortuous drive up the mountain.
“It’s only lonely if you want it to be,” she says. “You don’t do this if you get lonely.”
But she doesn’t really have to leave; for entertainment she can watch the stars from her catwalk or the fireworks of the Missoula County Fair some 50 miles away.
Vincent was drawn to the idea of being a lookout when she was a teenager growing up in New Jersey. She had read an article about World War II lookouts in National Geographic and that “sparked” her interest, she says. “I read that and never forgot it. It took until 1970 to fulfill my dream.”
Most lookouts in Montana have been replaced by air patrols, a downsizing that’s left a bit of a rift — albeit friendly — between the lookouts and pilots. “As much as we hate the aircraft to steal our fires, they can pinpoint a fire once one is detected,” Vincent says. “And we recognize each other’s abilities. A lookout is looking at just one side of a ridge.
“But we’ve picked up smokes 20 minutes after the plane has left. Smoke is very fickle in that respect.”
Air patrols might be more efficient. But for someone who grew up listening to Vincent and other lookouts bantering among themselves on the Forest Service radio, I think something will be lost when the last lookout is shut down, and when Virginia Vincent walks down from her tower for the last time.