In Real Life

Firewatch Is Inspiring A Legion Of Geeky Real Life Firewatchers

In the wake of Campo Santo’s beautiful first-person hiking simulator, is it any surprise that interest in the US’s real life fire watching jobs is spiking? Although the game is set in the 80s, the job of fire lookout is still something undertaken by hundreds of people each summer in the US — and the National Forestry Service might just be seeing a surprising influx of applications for this year’s fire season.

I have to admit, one of the first things I did after I finished Firewatch was to have a sneaky Google search to see whether Henry’s job was one that I could viably run off to, and according to Google Trends, I wasn’t the only one:

Of course, the job isn’t quite as exciting or even as active as the game makes it seem, as evidenced by former fire lookout pitamakan on Reddit.

You’re supposed to stay in the tower area during the workday, so there was much less everyday hiking than in the game. Besides watching for fires, you do daily meteorological readings, and sometimes serve as a radio relay for forest employees in more remote locations. There’s maintenance and other miscellaneous stuff to do, as well. And I had quiet time to work on some photography and writing, which was wonderful.

Domestic activities take more time up there, too, without modern conveniences. The biggest hassle was not having running water — every couple of days I had to hike to a stream a mile or so away, and fill a 5-gallon water container that I then had to pack back up the mountain!

Oh, and the Osborne Fire Finder is an actual thing that lookouts still use:

Basically, it’s used to get the azimuth/compass heading of a possible fire sighting. It’s like a turntable — you look through the sight on one end and rotate the finder so the smoke aligns with the crosshairs on the other end, and you read a vernier scale at the base to get a compass reading in degrees. Using a scale, the map on the firefinder table then gives you an approximate distance and location. You can also calculate the vertical angle of the fire in relation to you, if needed.

It’s pretty effective and simple, really. Works even better if two separate lookouts can see the smoke, because the two azimuth readings will let you triangulate the fire location with real precision.

What’s more, lookouts may even get to chat to their own Delilah:

One of the things that surprised me most about last summer was how immensely cool nearly all of the other lookouts were. I’d expected them all to be crabby misanthropes, but instead they were a fascinating and engaging bunch of free spirits. I bonded with them instantly, and they were proof to be that breaking away every now and then was a good thing.

Pitamakan has also uploaded some photos of the tower, which just go to show that Campo Santo really did their research:

One of the cruellest things about Firewatch’s ability to inspire people to escape to the wilderness is that it was released a scant few weeks after applications for most fire lookout positions close. Ouch.

Unfortunately for wanderlusting Australians, the job works a bit differently down this way — generally more of a drive-in shift than living in a tower like Henry’s. A number of disused towers in the US are now offered as holiday rentals, however, if you want to get your fix of Firewatch in real life without the months of loneliness.


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