Photo Courtesy of Pastordonn
Margee Kelly, 55, is a grandmother. She lives in the lookout six months of the year.
Margee Kelly, 55, is a grandmother. She lives in the lookout six months of the year. Photo Courtesy of Pastordonn
The lookout sits on a granite pinnacle and is reached by a 188-step staircase.
The lookout sits on a granite pinnacle and is reached by a 188-step staircase. Sasha Khokha/NPR
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The Needles Fire Lookout in Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif., is 8,245 feet above sea level. More than 600,000 acres of wilderness can be observed from the tower.
The Needles Fire Lookout in Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calif., is 8,245 feet above sea level. More than 600,000 acres of wilderness can be observed from the tower. Sasha Khokha/NPR
Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lookout is 14-by-14 feet. Kelly has spent 21 seasons in the small quarters. Here, the view from her bed.
Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lookout is 14-by-14 feet. Kelly has spent 21 seasons in the small quarters. Here, the view from her bed. Sasha Khokha/NPR
Margee Kelly has spent the past 21 fire seasons scanning the horizon for lightning strikes and smoldering trees from a fire tower in Giant Sequoia National Monument in California.
She spends most of her day perched atop a lightning stool, a wooden platform that helps deflect electric current.
"Once I see a storm now, I get on the stool. Ever since the antenna was vaporized. 'Cause it's important we don't get fried," she says.
Kelly knows her unique job may not be around forever. In the 1930s, there were an estimated 9,000 active fire lookouts nationwide. Now there are fewer than 1,000.
As fire managers face tough budget choices, there's talk of installing cameras to watch fires instead. But Kelly believes there is no substitute for the human eye.
"It's hard to see what a fire's doing when it's on the ground and it's right in front of you, so they rely on us to give them the big picture," she says. "When they've got a helicopter, they've got the big picture. But flight time's expensive. They're only in the air when they have to be."
Through her tower windows, Kelly can scan a 360-degree panorama that includes Mount Whitney and the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles — more than 600,000 acres of wilderness is visible to her. Kelly is lean and blond, and she constantly wears polarized sunglasses to help her spot smoke. In her tower, she has braved earthquakes, lightning strikes and sometimes 80 fires in a season.
It's a two-mile hike up switchbacks and a climb up 188 wooden stairs to get to the fire tower, but the 55-year-old grandmother is tough enough to do it with a mountain bike, and she says she loves it.
Kelly lives six months a year in a tidy 14-by-14-foot room. A plush double bed takes up a third of the space. There's also a tiny stove and oven, a propane refrigerator, and a water crock for drinking and washing. A helicopter flies in periodically to bring supplies and empty out the porta-potty.
She has no cell phone, no electricity, but she says she's never lonely.
"I don't understand the concept. I would think a person who's lonely has a complete lack of imagination, and I don't. I can entertain myself," she says. "Hello refrigerator. What do you want to eat today Margee? I don't know. What would you like to feed me?"
A radio console dominates the center of the room. Kelly spends most of her time listening to radio traffic, peering through binoculars, and plotting fires on a huge circular map covered by a glass disk. Some days, she'll see no one but a few peregrine falcons.
"They usually fly around checking me out, like, what are you doing there? Are you a bird? Is it your nest? Cool nest," she says, laughing.
But there are some occasional visitors. She bakes chocolate chip cookies for the rock climbers who come to scale the famous pinnacles next to the tower. Her grandkids come and stay for a week each year, and about a thousand tourists hike up each season to see her.
Some of those tourists make her nervous when they press their noses to the glass and watch her cook salmon for lunch.
"People are so unaware you can live like this," she says. I'll actually get asked, 'What do you eat?' And I'll say, 'Dirt and needles.' "
But Kelly doesn't mind answering most questions from visitors.
"I had a little girl ask me once, wasn't I afraid out here? I can't think of anything that makes me afraid other than people; they can get pretty weird. I said, 'Are you afraid?' 'Well, yeah, we just had a drive-by shooting,' and I said, 'Honey, I can guarantee you, no drive-by shootings here.' "