Cornwall lookout under threat

The historic fire lookout on top of Cornwall is slated to be demolished this fall.

The fire lookout on top of Cornwall is slated to be dismantled this fall.

BC Parks has announced plans to dismantle the historic fire lookout at the top of Cornwall Mountain. The dismantling is slated to take place in the fall of 2015, unless an organization or group of volunteers interested in maintaining the structure and holding liability for it steps forward.

Built in the late 1950s, the Cornwall fire lookout station was regularly manned each summer until the early 1990s, after which it was only used if there was a fire risk in the area. By 1999 it was the only Forest Service Lookout Tower in the Kamloops Fire District that was still active, if only intermittently. The last time the lookout was used was during the 2003 wildfire in the Cornwall Hills. Despite that, the building remains in good shape and is open to the public, who can record their names in a logbook kept inside.

Over the last few years many of these lookouts have been dismantled, as they are no longer used and the Fire Protection Service cannot manage and retain liability for them. In 2012 the provincial government, in partnership with local governments, community groups, businesses, individuals, and volunteers, restored fire lookout stations in Boston Bar, Terrace, Houston, Enderby, and Kaslo. They were chosen based on their location, accessibility, community use, and historical significance. Mike Apsey, President of the BC Forest Service Centenary Society, noted that while “Technological advances have lessened the use of lookouts . . . there is still a mystique attached to them that strikes a chord with the public.”

Local groups such as snowmobile and hiking clubs have been responsible for saving other decommissioned fire towers, by taking them over and maintaining them. Many of these lookout sites are popular with hikers and ATV users in summer, and with skiers and snowmobilers in the winter. The summit of Cornwall is also a popular destination for hang-gliding enthusiasts, and the Gold Country Communities Society has a geocache at the site.

Fire lookouts were the main way to detect fires for many decades, until they were largely supplanted by the use of spotter planes beginning in the 1960s. There appears to have been an informal fire lookout on the top of Cornwall since the 1890s, as the summit gives sweeping views in every direction. The current lookout tower is a standard cottage-roof cabin on top of a wooden tower. The base of the tower provided living accommodations for the person manning it, while the cabin—surrounded by a catwalk—was used for fire-spotting, with continuous windows on all four sides maximizing the surveillance capacity of a lone observer. It’s one of two predominant fire lookout formats constructed by the BC Forest Services between the 1920s and the late 1950s. While it’s not known how the material for the tower was brought to the site, it could conceivably have been by helicopter, as in 1957 the Nahatlatch Fire Lookout near Boston Bar was constructed from pre-fabricated materials brought in by helicopter. It took some 37 trips to bring all the material to the site, but proved that this was a viable means to construct fire lookouts in relatively inaccessible locations.

Those manning the lookout stations would scan the surroundings, paying attention to potential fire hazards and recent weather events. Since a “sleeper fire”—ignited below ground by lightning—could smoulder for several days with no visible signs, areas that could have sustained lightning strikes needed to be watched very carefully.

Any group interested in maintaining the lookout is asked to contact BC Parks at ParkInfo@Victoria1.gov.bc.ca. The Journal attempted to contact BC Parks at this address two weeks ago for more information; as of the date of writing, no response has been received.

Barbara Roden

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