Jack Kelley knew he wanted to play Firewatch since seeing the first pieces of artwork. After the game released in 2016, Kelley became fascinated by the real world lookout towers that inspired the game, culminating in the 14-year-old fan saving a historic lookout tower from demolition.
“Campo Santo really changed my life with Firewatch,” Kelley told Kotaku in an email. Firewatch is a short game about a man named Henry who takes a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming, where he befriends a fellow lookout named Delilah. They’re both running from parts of their pasts but find solace in the company of one another’s disembodied voices ringing out through old walkie talkies. Where many players were haunted by a tragedy that slowly reveals itself over the course of the game’s story, what stuck in Kelley’s mind most were the watch towers themselves.
“I was transfixed by fire towers, and started learning about the ones around me and spending more and more of my time researching,” he said. Earlier this month he tweeted about Campo Santo’s game and how it changed his life. “One thing led to another, and then I’m the youngest member of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA)” he tweeted.
After finishing Firewatch Kelley started visiting and researching fire towers. He’s visited a different tower nearly every weekend since the game came out, ranging from the Western edge of Maryland to the Eastern border of Maine. He estimates that he and his dad have driven about 1,180 miles.
One of these trips was last August in which, after getting off a 12-hour work shift, John Kelley drove his son five hours north to Sebec, Maine, so they could visit the Wadleigh Mountain fire tower before it was taken down in the following months. “We got to where we were staying at 1:00 AM. We slept for only 5 hours. It was, you guessed it, a great time,” the younger Kelley said.
On another trip they spent a full day in Barre, Vermont, at the Vermont Historical Society’s headquarters with his dad digging through maps and books. This wasn’t just to deepen his own understanding of the subject matter, but to use the original sources to fill in gaps in the FFLA’s knowledge of Vermont watchtowers.
Founded in 1990, the FFLA has several chapters across the US and Canada. Kelley has expanded the organization’s archive of information, and he also created and maintains the Massachusetts FFLA Facebook page. “It isn’t easy,” he said. “This sounds really narcissistic but I know a lot about fire towers, and a good portion of that kind of repetition of information and research is not easy. It takes dedication.” That dedication includes visiting over 140 different towers, delivering talks on the subject to hikers, and eventually managing to save one of the more unique ones from being totally destroyed.
Last August, Kelley learned through the course of his research that the Powellville Aermotor LS-40 tower in Maryland, one of the tallest in existence at 144 feet, was set to come down. “Being a part of the FFLA, and investing as much time as I have into fire lookouts, makes me feel a sort of responsibility to do what I can to save a tower that might come down,” he said. “Since the real decline in usage of fire towers began in the 1960’s, thousands of lookouts across the country have been burned, razed, scrapped, disassembled, or otherwise removed, many without ceremony or more than a few people to see their end.” The Maryland structure is the tallest fire tower east of the Mississippi River according to Kelley’s research, and even has an intact “widow’s walk,” a platform atop the cab used to warn of potential attack aircrafts during WWII. “I don’t want to ever sit back and let a tower come down without a little bit of a fight if I can help it, but this situation was special due to the tower in question.”
Utilizing a provision of the Maryland Historical Trust review process, Kelley contacted the state as an “interested party” to try to negotiate some alternative for the Powellville tower that wouldn’t end in a shallow scrapyard grave. “I contacted Charles Mazurek, who was the lead on the project for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and discussed various preservation options, as well as why I believed the tower should be saved,” he said. Several Google Docs making his case later, Kelley got a call last fall saying the DNR had agreed to disassemble the tower and look for a location where it could be rebuilt and restored in the future.
“This was, and still is, one of my proudest achievements,” Kelley said. “While the lookout is still being taken down, its pieces are being saved for a future rebuilding, as opposed to being scrapped, because of me, which I think is pretty great.”
None of this would have happened without the mark left by Firewatch. But Kelley tells me it wouldn’t have happened either without his mom being willing to listen to him talk endlessly about arcane watchtower details and his dad spending countless weekends taking him to explore much of the Northeastern Corridor’s interior. “There are too many great memories from too many places for me to have a definitive favorite, although Whitney Hill in Macwahoc Plantation, Maine, is close,” said Kelley. “I love remote towers and Maine has some pretty hard-to-find ones. When standing in the small clearing in front of the stand of pines the tower sits in, all you can see are 4 large concrete footings, and then, 72ft up, a rusted metal cab sticking out of the treetops like the mast of a ship about to go under.”
Smartphones and satellites have greatly diminished the role of the traditional fire lookout tower. As a result, many have been phased out over the last decade, historic landmarks erased under the pressure of cash-strapped state budgets and improved surveillance tools. Firewatch itself is set in 1988, right at the cusp of this transformative technological revolution. While Firewatch preserves these towers in a digital sense, Kelley is working diligently to preserve them in the real world.
“Thousands of lookouts across the country have been burned, razed, scrapped, disassembled, or otherwise removed, many without ceremony or more than a few people to see their end,” said Kelley. “It’s one of the first things I learned two years ago when researching, and the more I learned the more it came up. I mean, everything ends eventually, but there are lots of situations where there was simply nobody at the right place and time who cared about an abandoned tower or could do anything to save it, so the tower was removed.”
Unlike the ending of Firewatch where the past is buried and later burned away, Kelley doesn’t plan to let the same thing happen to America’s great fire lookout towers.