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Kookipi Creek fire destroys Nahatlatch Fire Lookout tower

Original tower, built in 1957, collapsed in 2011 and was rebuilt in 2012

The Nahatlatch Fire Lookout tower northwest of Boston Bar has been destroyed by the Kookipi Creek wildfire.

The fire, which was caused by lightning and discovered on July 8, exploded on Aug. 17, fanned by high winds through the Fraser Canyon area. The wooden tower was consumed within seconds, with the event caught on video by Lyttonet, the area’s internet service provider, which had a camera near the tower.

The lookout — visible from Highway 1 near Boston Bar on a clear day — stood at an elevation of 1,190 metres (3,900 feet) in the Lillooet Range of the Coast Mountains, overlooking the scenic Nahatlatch Valley. The original tower was constructed in 1957 by the BC Forest Service, which constructed fire lookouts throughout B.C. between the 1920s and the 1950s using two predominant designs.

The Nahatlatch Lookout was very similar to the tower on Cornwall Mountain near Ashcroft: a standard cottage-roofed cabin on top of a tapered wooden tower, with a catwalk extending around the full perimeter of the upper storey. A continuous band of windows around the cabin maximized the surveillance capabilities of the solitary observer, who was stationed there every fire season.

Nahatlatch played a significant role in fire lookout construction history for its pioneering use of helicopters to determine if it was economically feasible to transport pre-fabricated lookouts to remote locations. Flight log records indicate that 37 flights were needed to complete the delivery of materials to the high elevation site in late May 1957. The experiment was deemed a success, and helicopters went on to play a prominent role in fire lookout construction throughout B.C.

In the early 1960s two locals — Clara Keely and Bob Walters — were hired to construct a road to the Nahatlatch lookout, to improve access and the delivery of supplies. An observer was stationed at the tower every fire season from 1957 until the early 1970s, when advances in modern fire detection ended the need for human observers. The tower was officially decommissioned in 1993.

Over the years the lookout became a popular spot for hikers, ATV clubs, and geocaching enthusiasts for both day-use visits and overnight stays. However, the high elevation and exposure to the elements gradually took their toll, and in the winter of 2011 the 54-year-old structure collapsed under the weight of a heavy snowfall.

As part of a project to restore five retired fire lookouts for the BC Forest Service’s centennial in 2012, Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC) selected the Nahatlatch Lookout for a complete restoration. As the original tower had been completely destroyed, this meant the rebuild had to begin from scratch.

The rubble from the old tower was completely cleared away. Historical Forest Service construction plans and measurements from remaining timbers from the original lookout were used to ensure dimensional accuracy. In a mammoth volunteer effort over two weekends in 2012, more than 25 people — including representatives from RSTBC, Fraser Wildfire Management, The Four Wheel Drive Association of BC, South Western All Terrain Trails, Nahatlatch Valley cabin owners, and the local geocaching community — rebuilt the tower.

In 2013 the Nahatlatch Lookout was formally established as a recreation site, and the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC had entered into a partnership agreement with RSTBC to manage and maintain the site. Matt Ion, the association’s communications director, says they have already been receiving inquiries about fundraising and rebuilding.

“So many people want to know about fundraising, and how soon can we get up and start rebuilding,” he says. “It probably won’t be before next summer, or two years, depending on the red tape we have to go through.”

Ion says that even though the Kookipi Creek wildfire has been burning since early July, it wasn’t much of a concern until Aug. 17.

“I think it was listed as being held. The fire was way up the hill in very steep mountains, but then the winds came up and took off. As far as we know it came down, jumped the river, and came back up the mountain on [the fire lookout] side.”

The site was a popular one with ATVers, with Ion saying that several hundred people travelled to the lookout each season.

“We’ll have discussions this winter [about rebuilding]. We’ve already had one person say they can donate building materials, but it will depend on how much Recreation Sites and Trails BC will kick in. They’ve been amazing to deal with, and I have no doubt they’ll be anxious to rebuild the site, but they have processes they have to go through.”