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Players: Billy Ellis

In Pike National Forest, an Office With a View

From Aerie, Fire Sentry Scans for Smoke

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A23

DEVIL'S HEAD, Colo. -- In most government agencies, the corner office with the classy view is reserved for the top brass. But U.S. Forest Service employee Billy Ellis has turned the tables.

"Fact is, I'm only a GS-5," Ellis said with a chuckle. "And it was pushing things to get it up to a five. But I've got the best office, with the finest views, in the entire federal government. They throw in a nice little house besides -- and it's just a five-minute commute from work."

Forest Service lookout Billy Ellis uses a tool to mark the location of a potential fire. (T.R. Reid -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Billy Ellis

Title: Fire Lookout, U.S. Forest Service.

Education: Graduated, Crozier Technical High School, Dallas.

Age: 72.

Family: Married; nine children, 21 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren.

Career highlights: Collator, the Business Word; tree inspector, U.S. Forest Service; sergeant first class, U.S. Army.

Pastimes: Reading, mostly nonfiction, biographies and National Geographic magazine.

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To get that spectacular windows-all-around office with 100-mile views and his government-issue log cabin in a secluded forest glen, Ellis fills an increasingly rare federal job description: He is one of the last of the Forest Service's fire lookouts, spending his days in splendid isolation atop a rocky peak in Pike National Forest about 9,700 feet above sea level.

Binoculars at the ready, Ellis scans hundreds of square miles of forest, from the purple mountain majesties of the Continental Divide, 60 miles to the west, to the amber waves of grain blanketing the prairie stretching out to the east.

"On a cool, moist day, it can be pretty slow up here," he said. "But after a couple of dry days and then one of them afternoon lightning storms rolls in, I sometimes spot 10, 12 smokes in a half-hour period."

When Ellis spots a "smoke" -- most fires smolder for hours or even days before any sign of flame breaks the forest canopy -- he gets on the radio and starts directing firefighting crews to the site.

"When you're charging up a mountain in a thick forest, you often can't see the fire you've come to fight," said Dave Bauman, a Pike National Forest supervisor. "But on his rock up there, Bill can see the fire, and he can see where the crew is headed. And he can steer us within a few feet of it."

With an observant lookout, clear directions and good communication, crews can control or extinguish most blazes before they spread. Depending on weather conditions, Ellis may spot several hundred nascent fires in the course of a summer.

"There's no question that Bill has saved tens of thousands of acres that would have been lost if we hadn't gotten a crew in there quickly," Bauman said.

Situated about midway between Denver and Colorado Springs, the Devil's Head rock formation -- so called because it looks like a face with two protruding horns when viewed from the south -- offers such a panoramic view of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains that it has been the site of a lookout station since 1907.

Although most lookout stations around the nation have been shut down -- the function is now carried out from spotter airplanes -- Devil's Head is still manned from about April to October each year.

The current rock-top "office" -- a 12-by-12-foot wooden observatory with high windows all around -- was erected in 1951; it took 100 men and 71 mules to haul the materials up the rugged half-mile trail from the nearest road.

Ellis has handled the lookout duties here for 20 summers. At 72, he is one of the oldest GS-5s in the federal service.

"I retired from USDA four years ago," Ellis said. "Got me a plaque and everything. But I found I still needed to eat. So my wife and I still come back every summer." He has always been a seasonal employee for the Forest Service, working summers. Winters, he used to work for a printing company in Denver.

After all those years, Ellis says, forest fires don't scare him anymore, although he remembers vividly the 2002 Hayman fire that raced to within four miles of his aerie and enveloped the office in smoke and flying ash. Actually, the most frightening aspect of a job on the top of a mountain is a thunderstorm.

"You can get religion sometimes when that lightning is coming close," Ellis said. Under Forest Service regulations, he sits out the big storms on his official "lightning chair" -- a standard four-legged stool with electric insulators wrapped around each foot. But as soon as it is safe to stand up, he is back at work, searching the forested hills for lightning-ignited fires.

A cheery, talkative man with a neat white beard, Ellis also serves as an ambassador for the Forest Service, giving fire-prevention tips to Scout troops and families that make the steep hike up to his office every weekend.

Still, the lookout job can be lonely -- "once the kids go back to school, we go days or weeks when nobody comes up here" -- and living conditions are tough. The lookout's cabin has no running water, and the only way to bring in supplies is on one's back.

But the man with the best office in the government is not complaining.

"Some mornings, I light off my Franklin stove and sit up here and watch the sun rise over Pike's Peak. And I think, 'I can't believe they're paying me for this,' " Ellis said, adding, "And there's another benefit I kind of like: I very, very seldom see my supervisor."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company