HIGH ROCK LOOKOUT, Wash. — Bud Panco likes the nights best. That's when "the stars come out like diamonds," he says. And in the morning, the lanky, 67-year-old Panco is awakened by the sun peeking over the horizon.
His lookout shack perched atop a granite boulder, a mile high and with a sheer drop on three sides, provides a magnificent vista for miles around.
Panco, who has spent most of his life in and around the Giffort Pinchot National Forest in the shadows of Mt. Rainier, is one of a disappearing breed. He is a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service.
From July to the end of September, he spends most days and nights in the spartan, 14-foot cabin known as High Rock Lookout. Once there were 62 lookouts in the region, but now only three. High Rock always was among the most spectacular.
"When you come up here you really go back in time," Panco tells a visitor, who has trekked 1.6 miles through the pine and spruce along a narrow path and finally up a cluster of boulders to reach the lookout.
He explains that each piece of the gable-roofed lookout--with its row of windows covering four sides--was brought up the trail by pack mules in 1929. It took 31 days to assemble with a steel pillar drilled into the rock and four guide wires securing it in place.
On three sides there is a sheer 1,000-foot drop and to the north, snow-covered Mt. Rainier, at 14,410 feet.
Mt. St. Helens and its volcanic crater can be seen 40 miles to the south. When it erupted in 1980, sending volcanic ash everywhere, the explosive shock battered the lookout. Luckily it still was shuttered for winter and partially covered by snow; it escaped damage.
There once were thousands of fire lookouts, many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
But today most have been replaced by satellite technology that tracks lightning strikes and by observations from aircraft and tips from campers and hikers, says John Chambers, the Forest Service's assistant director of fire and aviation management in Washington.
Panco has sharp features and a full gray beard with glasses peeking from beneath a broad-brimmed Forest Service hat. He abandons the lookout only for an occasional supply run and when the weather turns sour.
"There's no sense in sitting here looking at a fog bank," he says.
There are few comforts--no running water, no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Panco communicates on his two-way radio, sleeps on a cot and relies on a small propane heater to cook food and a battery-powered lamp for light.
He cherishes the nights when the stars dot the sky, and rises early. "When the sun comes up, I get up," he says.
But weather, even in summer, can be unpredictable.
In mid-July, an unseasonable snowstorm caused Panco to briefly abandoned his hideaway. "Snow was shooting across the rocks," he recalls. "It can snow up here anytime it darn well pleases."
Although forest fires have burned more than 4 million acres in a dozen states across the West this year, keeping firefighters busy from Southern California to Montana, Panco's watch area has been spared.
Last year, he says, a string of lightning strikes produced six fires in the southeastern corner of the forest. When he spied the smoke, he sounded the alarm to Forest Service officials in Packwood, a town a few miles down the mountain.
When not at High Rock, where he has spent summers since 1986, Panco lives with his wife in Packwood, where he grew up. For many years, he worked there for a timber company and as a volunteer fireman.
If life as a fire lookout is lonely, he hasn't noticed, perhaps because he gets frequent visitors who take the hourlong walk up the mountain after a two-mile drive on a potholed dirt road.
"There were 50 people on the rock at one time one day over the July 4th weekend," he says. "How can you get lonely?"