How to thrive in isolation, according to one of WA's last fire lookouts

For ‘Lightning’ Bill Austin, life in a Methow Valley lookout tower isn’t too different from life under social distancing.

Bill Austin stands in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain

Bill Austin stands in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain on Aug. 16, 2019. This year will be Austin's 30th year as a fire lookout. (Beatriz Costa Lima/Crosscut)

It’s been 27 days since Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order began, and if there’s one thing we’ve all learned, it’s that staying indoors is perhaps harder than we imagined. 

But if there’s one person who knows how to make the most of isolation, it’s Bill Austin, one of Washington’s last full-time fire lookouts. Known to his colleagues as “Lightning Bill” for his love of strikes hitting his tower during summer storms, Austin is preparing for his 30th fire season in the Methow Valley on the eastern slope of the Cascades.

Austin says he wanted to be a lookout since age 6, but even he acknowledges that being alone isn’t easy. “It takes a certain kind of person to be a lookout,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like solitude.” 

One might imagine that solitude has hardened Austin into a distant, brooding hermit intent on escaping society. But Lightning Bill radiates warmth and friendliness, and loves engaging with visitors who climb the steps to his one-room, 40-foot tower overlooking 5,008-foot Leecher Mountain in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. But he says he’s comfortable being by himself during the long stretches in between — so much so that he often requests to stay in the tower in the downtime between his 14-day rotations.

Austin’s tours of duty on Leecher Mountain bear some similarity to what many Washingtonians are just now learning to live with. He must stay in the same place for months on end, has limited in-person contact and can go to town for supplies only every few days. He goes on hikes and, as a local celebrity, he attracts more visitors than your average lookout. This season, that might change, as Austin says the Forest Service most likely will allow visitors to say hello only from the ground to maintain social distancing.

He says he’s disappointed, but he understands the need for safety measures, and since Austin was a lookout long before he acquired fame or smartphones, he remains well equipped to persevere. Austin’s nearly three decades of lookout experience prove that solitude is not simply something to bear, but something anyone can take advantage of with the right mindset. Here, he sheds light on how to get there.

Bill Austin holds his daily calendar booklet

Bill Austin holds his daily calendar booklet in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain on Aug. 16, 2019. He keeps a diary of the day's happenings and plans the day ahead. (Beatriz Costa Lima/Crosscut)

Bill Austin holds his daily calendar booklet in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain on Aug. 16, 2019. He keeps a diary of the day's happenings and plans the day ahead. (Beatriz Costa Lima/Crosscut)

Keep a diary

Buying a calendar was one of the first things Austin did when he started working as a lookout. Each day, he wrote down both what he had accomplished and what needed to be done tomorrow. He continues the practice to this day, insisting that the act of writing provides a task and makes one think ahead. While social distancing at home, he keeps the habit going by keeping a diary of the day’s happenings on his phone. 

“[When I started] I just kept kind of a calendar and kind of a really little diary of each day, and that really helped a lot,” he says. “Instead of just sitting there going ‘oh what do I do, what do I do?’... and you know setting goals for yourself even though you can't go anywhere.”
 

Get a hobby or five

“Take up a hobby or two or three to keep you busy,” he says. “You have to keep yourself busy. You can't dwell on the situation.”

Austin’s days up on Leecher Mountain usually begin before sunrise. He wakes up and immediately heads to the catwalk lining the outside walls of his lookout tower to begin his first hobby of the day: photography. He shoots in sunrise to capture the best colors filling the sky. Once completed, he climbs down for a quick hike to get doses of activity and fresh air before remaining in the tower for the remainder of the day, where he will scan the valley for smoke every 15 minutes and check in with supervisors over the radio.

In between valley scans, keeping the fire going and visits from hikers, he paints, crafts or plays musical instruments like guitar or harmonica (he plans to bring drums this coming season). He makes handmade zipper pulls with leather bands and trinkets. The day usually wraps up with watching the sunset. 
 

Learn something

Austin says every day brings an opportunity to learn something new, work and nonwork related. To better understand the valley he protects, he studies maps and practices using the Osborne Fire Finder, a large fire-sighting tool occupying the middle of his cabin. 

“My job is to know the land out there, and there's more learning in a lifetime,” he says. “I'll never learn all these mountains and stuff.” 

While sheltering at home, he watches YouTube videos on his phone to get better at ukulele and drums, experimenting with new styles of painting, learning to cook and staying fit by taking to his treadmill and home gym instead of hiking. 

“I try to stay busy trying to make myself better,” he says. “You’ve got to definitely stay in shape — not just sit there, eat a bunch of food and cry. You’ve got to give yourself a good attitude.”

Bill Austin looks through his Osborne Fire Finder

Bill Austin looks through his Osborne Fire Finder in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain on Aug. 16, 2019. In the time between his lookout duties, Austin often studies the region he watches over. (Beatriz Costa Lima/Crosscut)

Bill Austin looks through his Osborne Fire Finder in his lookout tower on Leecher Mountain on Aug. 16, 2019. In the time between his lookout duties, Austin often studies the region he watches over. (Beatriz Costa Lima/Crosscut)

Know yourself

In 1977, Austin went 20 days without seeing another person. In this pre-smartphone, pre-Zoom era, his only connection to the outside world was the voice on the other end of his radio. Despite his affinity for solitude, he admits struggling. 

“That was different,” he says. “That was hard, especially that last week, I kept thinking, ‘Come on, someone please show up.’ But I made it through. I learned a lot. I learned how to take notes and come up with ideas of things to do and things to fix.” 

Austin says he repaired and repainted portions of the tower, and he improved nearby trails and even built a small campground. A writer from Idaho eventually showed up; Austin says he nearly scared him off at first because he was so excited to see someone. 

Solitude can be a good teacher, Austin says. It offers the opportunity for people to look inward and find benefits that will outlast any period of loneliness. He says that’s especially true of our current crisis. 

“Being a lookout all of those years, I'm already tuned into a lot of what we're going through already, but I know a lot of people aren't,” he says. “[Being alone], you learn your likes and your dislikes and all that stuff. I don't think a lot of people even know themselves. Maybe this social distancing will help people get to know themselves. This is going to get better, and we're all going to appreciate a lot more about life and stuff after this is over.”

“You have to like yourself,” he says. “I like myself.”

About the Authors & Contributors