Tom Ross: Violins are fire lookout’s ‘flame’ |

Tom Ross: Violins are fire lookout’s ‘flame’

When he isn’t searching the ridges of the Payette National Forest north of Boise and McCall, Idaho, Kevin Prestwich pursues his passion for making concert violins. He often seeks prime pieces of Engelmann spruce from the forest to use in the construction of the instrument’s “belly” or top plate at his tiny workbench. (Photo by Tom Ross)

PAYETTE NATIONAL FOREST, IDAHO — It hadn’t crossed my mind Aug. 25, as we set out on the 3-mile hike to the Granite Mountain fire lookout in southwestern Idaho, that there might actually be a human being manning the boxy living quarters atop the tower.

To be sure, there were enough forest fires burning in the region during the last full week of August to keep a platoon of lookouts on their toes. But with the rarity of manned fire lookouts in the Colorado Rockies, it came as a surprise when Kevin Prestwich emerged from the glass-walled home atop one of the highest peaks in the Payette National Forest, and said, “Hi folks!” 

“I’ve been watching the Rattlesnake Creek Fire all week,” Prestwich told us. “It was blowing up a few days ago.”

I have a childhood memory, probably from the late 1950s, of watching a documentary about a fire lookout in Montana that captured my imagination. So, meeting Prestwich represented a rare opportunity. In fact, his story was more intriguing than I could have anticipated.

Prestwich was doing more than spotting fires in his mountain aerie.

Our brief camping trip in the forest well north of Idaho’s capital city Boise, and a little further beyond the resort town of McCall, represented the second stop in a three-state ramble in the Pacific Northwest.

The Granite Mountain hike boded well for the rest of the automobile journey.

During the last week in August, fire lookout Kevin Prestwich was keeping a close eye on the Rattlesnake Creek fire from 8,478-foot Granite Mountain, just to the east above the Little Salmon River. The summer of 2018 marked his eighth season on Granite Mountain. (Photo by Tom Ross)

We were fortunate that day that the direction of the prevailing winds had shifted dramatically overnight, clearing the pallor of smoke that had obscured views of the valley of the Little Snake River. The hike up — 1,739 feet of vertical — was notable for the final pitch, that required us to keep an eye out for rock cairns, to help us find our way.

The trail wound through and over dark grey boulders streaked with bands of white. Scratching out a living among the granite rocks, were wind-tortured evergreen trees that appeared to be ancient, not unlike Nevada’s bristlecone pines. The white bark pines that can be found at the highest altitudes of the Cascade Mountain Range can live to be 500 years old.

After engaging in a little small talk, Prestwich, invited my wife, Judy, and I to climb the steep staircase to view his summer home. The fire lookout affords him a 360-degree view of the Payette National Forest from 8,841-foot Patrick Butte in the east to the Seven Devils in the west.

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The Payette National Forest is seeking applications for Forestry Technicians (Lookout) through Oct. 10. The pay isn’t great at $14.30 per hour, but relocation expenses are reimbursed. And the job comes with a tiny home with unmatched views and all of the solitude one could ever wish for.

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Prestwich’s living space offered wrap-around windows but was a bit cramped. There was room for a sleeping cot and stove, and not much else. And the trip to the grocery store can be brutal.

On this day, he was excitedly looking forward to the arrival, the very next day, of a re-supply by helicopter.

I asked him, “How many years have you manned this tower?”

“Eight summers here, and before that, four years at a more remote lookout,” Prestwich replied. “I’m hoping we can stretch this season out a little longer.”

My interest in the fire lookout’s solitary living circumstances picked up when my eyes settled on his workbench and his hand tools. Hanging from pegs behind the bench were several violin parts — the “belly” or top of the instrument’s body, along with tuning boxes and scrolls.

“Are you a luthier?” I asked. 

“Yes, I make concert violins,” Prestwich said.

He went on to add that he makes some of his violin parts out of choice Engelmann spruce he harvests from the nearby forests. You can see them at

 So many questions leapt to mind, but I sensed our host wasn’t accustomed to being peppered by random journalists on vacation. It was almost time to be off.

“Would you let me make a phone video of you playing your own violin?” I asked him.

“I play a little bit, but I don’t have a playable instrument up here this summer,” he replied.

With that surprising note, we were on our way down the mountain, leaving the solitary violinmaker to the music of the peaks.

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.

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