SISTERS, OR -- A nearly 100-year-old fire lookout atop Black Butte is falling into disrepair, but a Sisters Ranger District Archaeologist is on a mission to save the small building. At one time, there were about 200 such structures in Oregon and Washington, but only three are left.
Matt Mawhirter says he’s not only trying to preserve the historic fire lookout, but also an important piece of Central Oregon history. "It represents the first formalized efforts for fire detection. And, it kind of is the last remaining building of a long history of lookouts on top of Black Butte." The 10'x10' D6 Cupola was built in 1922, "Black Butte has the first lookout on the Deschutes National Forest. It was built in 1910 and it was just a tree that they climbed up. Eventually that evolved into they built a platform in three trees. And then, eventually they built the D6 Cupola lookout."
Back then, fire spotters did it all, "The people who put out the fire were the same ones that found them. So, they would be up on the butte and they would see a fire; they would take a baring and they would run down the butte with their shovel and ax, maybe with one other person with them, put out the fire then have to run back up to the top of the butte to look for the next one."
Mawhirter spent a couple of years trying to get materials to the remote site; there are no roads to the building and supplies must be delivered by helicopter. He hopes to start work on the building’s base this fall, after the end of the current fire season. He's worried if the work doesn't begin soon, the building will just crumble. "It was never meant to last this long and it’s pretty abusive up there – the weather. So, right now the floor is pretty soft and pretty rotten, just from age and exposure to elements. We’re going to have to lift the building up, rebuild the entire floor frame and flooring and then put the building back down on top of that."
The work is slow and he says the Forest Service can only contribute a few thousand dollars. He's giving much of his own time and relying on skilled volunteers and the occasional donation to complete the work. But, for Mawhirter, it’s a labor of love. "We do have responsibility to maintain it and try to preserve it. But, given the difficulty, a lot of buildings like this would normally just kind of fall into disrepair and fall apart, but I like historic buildings and it’s the only one I have left on the district."
Top Photo: Black Butte Lookout in the 1980s, courtesy Matt Mawhirter
Lower Right: Black Butte Lookout July 2017, courtesy Kelly Cannon Miller, Deschutes Historical Museum