Summer begins this week and that means Oregon’s forest fire season won’t be far behind. Not too many decades ago, high adventure in the outdoors meant service, duty and responsibility to protect Oregon’s forests from catastrophic fire. This week, we learn about the Tillamook State Forest where women once ‘manned’ fire lookout towers and earned the nickname, “The Cloud Girls.”
When you visit the Tillamook Forest Center, you must step up in order to travel back to an earlier time. Lisa Gibson, an Education Specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that the replica four-story fire lookout tower provides visitors with a snapshot of life from an earlier era right after WWII.
As I joined her for the trek to the top of the tower, she said, “It’s a beautiful coincidence that there are 72 steps to the top, because there are 72 million trees planted across the Tillamook State Forest.” Gibson said the women who “manned” 15 towers atop the remote and rugged Oregon Coast Range Mountains began after WWII and continued through the early 1990s. They were called the “Cloud Girls.”
“It was a really romantic idea,” added Gibson. “These young women out by themselves in the forest – living on their own and watching for fire among the clouds and the tops of the trees. People had a vision that included a somewhat romantic image for their service.”
They were a special breed of Oregon Department of Forestry personnel, because women like Eleanor Mitchell answered a call that few men dared in the late 1940s.
Mitchell was prized and admired by all for her patience and willingness to endure lonely weeks in the woods. “By all accounts, she really enjoyed the job,” said Gibson.
The way Mitchell tells the story, it was actually easy and a job she relished – and as a young woman fresh from high school in Yamhill, it was right up her alley: “I’d be on my own, I’d have a salary and I would be independent and meet new people.”
Mitchell’s tour of duty began in 1950 and continued for 13 years. She encouraged and even trained more women to join the Cloud Girls, like her sister-in-law Barbara Mitchell. “Oh, I worshipped Eleanor – she was older and I thought everything she did was perfect. It was an easy sell job.”
But life inside a 14×14 wooden box was anything but “perfect” at a time long before the internet, cell phones or cable TV. Yet, the women said that they were never lonely – in fact, they enjoyed the solitude, and they had lifelines of a sort in their portable radios. Each lookout was required to call in twice daily with the conditions that would track unsettled weather.
Even in summer, conditions could turn dangerous in a heartbeat and become risky; especially when lightning storms swept past.
“Yes, that happened to me the first week or two,” noted Mitchell. “The first crack out of the box – a lightning storm came up from the south and one of the strikes went down near the tower. It was a terrible crashing sound.”
But there was little she could to do about it for there was no escape, so Mitchell learned quickly that lookouts must simply hunker down, endure the worst and get on with their jobs – regardless of the dangers. “I couldn’t escape to go down the tower and get on the ground. I just didn’t think about the hazard and I can’t say I was actually frightened.”
“Sometimes, all you could see was the fog,” noted Barbara. “You are often above the fog and then it’s cold. I’d often lie in my bed and my hair would blow from the cold wind blowing through the cracks in the lookout walls. It would be really cold.”
You can get a feel for those conditions today on a trail that leads to the top of Saddle Mountain State Park in the north Oregon Coast Range, where a lookout tower once stood for more than six decades. “It’s a very steep climb; especially the last half mile,” said park ranger Shelley Parker. “It’s definitely not for anyone who’s afraid of heights, but it’s quite rewarding when you get to the top because you enjoy a spectacular view.”
Back at the Tillamook Forest Center, Lisa Gibson said that scenery aside, the lookouts were isolated by choice and they enjoyed the chance to serve. “It really was an important civic responsibility as a fire lookout. In those days, we needed to get to the fire quickly and there weren’t even roads to get to the places where fire happened. The fire lookouts were key in providing information to field offices to get fire crews to attack fire before it got so big they couldn’t control it.”
Mitchell got to know all about “big” fires in 1951 when the last of four major blazes collectively called the “Tillamook Burn” (1933, ’39 and ’45 were the previous Tillamook blazes) roared to life in what’s known as a “rekindle.” It spread quickly – fanned by high winds and came within a mile of Mitchell’s tower at Trask Mountain. She learned later that while she was on duty embers from that fire had burned holes in the roof of her tower. She kept busy providing conditions and the fire’s status via the radio. “It didn’t dawn on me to be worried – for safety or anything. I guess I thought I was a pretty lucky and nothing bad would happen to me.”
While the official Cloud Girls service ended in the 1980’s, their spirit of service and their stories are alive and well at the Tillamook Forest Center. It is worth a visit to discover and learn more.