THE FIRST FIRE LOOKOUTS were improvised from whatever was at hand. By 1912 fire lookouts were used in Quebec, British Columbia, and the Dominion Lands. [The Dominion Lands were located in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Railway Belt and Peace River District of British Columbia. The government of Canada was responsible for fire protection in these lands prior to 1930.] .

Ranger on Watch, Sawridge Lookout, Alberta. 1917

Crow’s-nests were rough and ready lookouts that provided a bird’s-eye view of the surroundings.

Ingenious lookouts could be also devised from a land-locked boat, or an unused windmill.

In the mountains tents were set up on the highest accessible peak.

On the other hand, more permanent lookouts were also built in the same era. The Mt Tuft Lookout in British Columbia, for example, was used as early as 1914. (See second photo from top)

The first fire lookouts were generally used on a temporary basis. Fire rangers might stay for a few days looking for fire. Then they moved on to continue their patrol.

Watch: Raising a Wooden Fire Tower from the 1927 film Spare Time. [National Archives of Canada]


Wooden Fire Tower, New Brunswick. Constructed 1915.

Permanent lookouts began to replace the improvised lookouts and the wooden lookouts in the 1920s.

All lookouts were equipped with fire finders, maps, binoculars to spot fire, and telephones or radios to report fire. Livingquarters were within the lookout, or in a cabin close by. Permanent lookouts were staffed all day, every day, during fire season.


In the mountains of British Columbia, Alberta or the Yukon, fire lookouts were perched on the highest accessible mountaintop. In Canada's forests, on the other hand, towers up to 30 metres, or 100 feet in height, literally 'towered' above the trees from coast to coast.

Fire Lookouts: pros & cons. Fire lookouts were the primary means of wildfire detection in Canada for over 40 years, until the late 1960s. Aircraft patrols supplemented fire lookouts when necessary. The pros and cons of fire lookouts versus aircraft patrols were hotly debated.

Fire Tower, Algar, Alberta, 1995 Fire Tower, Ontario. 1958.

Fire lookouts provided constant surveillance. From the lookout a trained pair of eyes scanned the horizon for the better part of every day looking for fire.

Aerial patrols covered enormous distances, going where there were no lookouts. They could fly in close to a fire, size it up, and determine its location accurately. On the other hand, if a fire broke out after the aircraft passed, it was not detected until the next patrol.

TODAY FIRE LOOKOUTS are no longer the primary means of fire detection, but they still remain an important element of the fire detection strategy in many parts of Canada.

  • Alberta enthusiastically supports fixed lookout detection systems as ‘ the most effective and affordable insurance against wildfire in the province.’ The province has a network of 131 strategically located lookouts, one of the most extensive systems of lookouts on the continent.
  • British Columbia, the Yukon, and Manitoba utilize lookout stations in heavily-used recreational areas – and in remote, high-value areas, if the fire hazard is high.
  • Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec no longer use fire lookouts at all. They rely on aerial patrols, complex data gathering systems, and reports from the general public to detect fire.
  • Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, does not require organized fire detection. PEI relies on the public to report fire.
Photo Credit:
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [Ranger on Watch, Sawridge Lookout, Alberta. 1917; Fire Tower, Algar, Alberta, 1995]
New Brunswick Dept of Natural Resoures [Wooden Fire Tower, New Brunswick. Constructed 1915]
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [Fire Tower, Ontario. 1958]
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