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At the Lookout

Updated: May 8, 2020

The Osborne Fire Finder

By Mae Schick, author of "The Lookout Woman"

You’ve arrived at your lookout and the air at 7,000 feet is so thin it feels like you are sucking it through a straw. The lungs can’t fill up no matter how hard you try, and you are lightheaded. It rained on and off on the trail coming up, and the odor from the packer’s animals filled your nostrils. Your eyelids drooped in the saddle as you listened to the rhythm of clopping hooves and swayed with the rocking gait.

Ahead of you on the ridge awaits your home for the next three months. The experience is suddenly both exhilarating and exhausting, but, before you explore your new surroundings, you evaluate the tiny space to see how you can possibly store a thirty-day supply of goods.

Daylight fades before you are able to examine the single most important instrument in the cab.

The Osborne Fire Finder, the device designed by W. B. Osborne, a US Forest Service employee from Portland, Oregon in 1913. By 1915, his experimentation led to a model that was again updated in 1934 and became the trademark on many of the 5000 lookouts in the United States. The man’s innovations would later include a design for a collapsible water-bag knapsack for firefighting.

Before aircraft was used, the Osborne was the most reliable way to spot fires. It was most effective when two or more lookouts spotted the smoke and a ranger could triangulate the fire’s position. If not, the elevation measurement on the sights gave an estimated distance, and a compass heading could reasonably estimate the distance the smoke was from the lookout.

Although you’ve been trained to use the ingenious device with its large circular map of the local area, you aren’t in the classroom anymore. Now it is time to get up to speed real time on an imposing piece of equipment.

In the center of the map you find a marker where your lookout is situated and that will help you identify your location in relationship to a potential fire. All it needs is YOU to operate it. Two flexible sights (visible in above photo) are mounted at opposite sides of the ring that slide around the arc. Because it moves, you can position the device until it is lined up with the base of a column of smoke.

The enormity of the responsibility has sunk in. The sun peeks through a bank of clouds in your western facing windows. You’ve got a fire going in the pot belly stove. It’s time now to make up the cot and haul in a bucket of icy water from the holding tank.

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