Brig Malessa, 53, has been stationed at four different fire lookout towers over the past four years from May to October, and shares her day-to-day life on TikTok @briggygee.
Brig Malessa has spent four seasons working as a fire lookout stationed off the grid in remote areas.
After years of job-hopping and finding standard 9-to-5 jobs torturous, Malessa says she has finally found what works for her.
She now shares her day-to-day life on TikTok, educating people about her job and way of life.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Brigitte “Brig” Malessa, a 53-year-old fire lookout with the U.S. Forest Service who is currently stationed in central Oregon. Malessa shares her day-to-day life as a fire lookout on her TikTok account, @briggygee.
I went on a camping trip in New Mexico in 2019 and basically just stumbled upon a fire tower. I had heard of them in the past and wondered about working at one, but I wasn’t really aware that it was a job I could still have today.
I’ve always loved weird, cool jobs, especially where you can be alone in the woods. I worked with salmon in Alaska, living remotely. I lived on a sailboat. I was a bear guide — I took people on hikes to watch bears in the wild. I was a farrier for horses. I’ve had a lifetime of experience being outdoors and living remote, and all of that led right into my work as a fire lookout very easily.
I’m 53, and this is now my fourth season doing this work. I had no background in wildfires or forest service before I started. I’ve been in four different lookouts over four years, but often people will get one lookout and stay there for decades.
This year, I’m in central Oregon. Last year, I was in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, in the Northern Rockies — it was way up in the mountains, and they brought me up on horseback. The year before, I was in Idaho, near Boise. The first year, I was in New Mexico, in the far Southern Rockies.
At Malessa’s lookout last year in Montana, all food, water, mail, and other supplies were hauled in by pack mules every 3 weeks.
I live in a cabin with no electricity or running water. We haul all our water in, so even if I shower it’s just with a little bit, not even a bucket.
The weather is a big part of my daily comfort — sometimes it can be really uncomfortably hot, or it can get really cold or wet.
The lookouts have a solar panel, which runs the base radio for work, and connected to that is a tiny inverter for power. I also have my own solar panel and power pack, and as long as I remember to charge it when the sun’s out, I have enough to charge my phone, my iPad, and my other camera. Some places will provide you with rudimentary internet. This year, I have good cell service, but I barely had any last year.
For hygiene, Malessa uses a small wash basin for bathing. Her Oregon lookout is equipped with an outhouse.
The pay is $18.06 an hour. In this district we get a lot of overtime — I work seven days a week, 12 hour days, even more if there’s a fire. Last summer, I brought home around $11,000, and I’ll probably double that this year. I’m at this location from the end of May to the middle of October, which is fairly standard.
There really was no formal training for me, though it’s different everywhere. If you’re a wildland firefighter you’re definitely going to be a better fire lookout to start, but it’s something anybody can learn. If you’re observant and proactive, you’ll figure it out.
In terms of health requirements, your vision and hearing just need to be correctable enough to do the job. You should be able to read and write, and you have to be able to get up a flight of stairs. That’s about it.
When I think I spot smoke the very first thing I do is glance at the clock and write down the time. Then I go for my binoculars and start watching it until I’m sure it’s smoke. Sometimes I know that it’s smoke within a second, but sometimes I don’t know for sure. It could be weird clouds, or it could be dust. As time goes on you learn to pick out what’s smoke and what’s not pretty quickly.
Then I go to the Osborne Fire Finder, which is the main tool we use. I find an azimuth, which is the direction of a fire from where I’m standing in degrees, and then start whittling down where and how far away it is. I call dispatch and tell them the azimuth, the distance, the behavior of the fire, a description of the smoke that I’m seeing, and the fuel that might be burning. Depending on where you are, they usually send out a plane to confirm it.
The main tools of the fire lookout job are a radio and the Osborne Fire Finder.
Brig Malessa, Sophie Vernholm
You have to be able to see the biggest viewshed possible. For me, right now that’s upstairs in my 14-by-14 foot room. I can take a walk and just carry my radio with me, but I only go downstairs for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time when I’m working.
You’re not scanning 100% of the time — you just make sure to take a good 360 every 15 to 20 minutes, which might take two minutes. Once you get used to it, you’re always kind of watching.
You can do anything you want as long as you’re keeping an eye out. This job is historically well-loved by artists, musicians, and writers. A lot of big writers have been fire lookouts — Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder.
I do lots of little creative things. I do artwork, and I learned to play the ukulele. This year, I got a bow, and I’m trying archery.
Malessa uses her time to explore creative pursuits, like music and art.
I see other people at least every few weeks. People are welcome to visit, but I’m more comfortable being alone. I don’t like a lot of visitors — one of my very first questions when I’m interviewing for a lookout is how many visitors, and I pick it based on how quiet it is.
I think I’m an anomaly in that way. I’ve never felt like I fit in around people; nature’s always been my best friend. If I’m hanging out up here with the trees and some animals, I’m happy.
Every month or so I’ll talk to my oldest friend on the phone, sometimes for hours. And it’s very important to me that I connect with my mother — she’s elderly, with dementia.
I do a video call with her every day. I have a system set up so she doesn’t even have to know how to answer — I just show up in a video on her wall. Conversation isn’t really flowing anymore, but I often just read whatever book I’m reading out loud, or I just sit with her.
The fact that I share my life on TikTok now is ironic, but I first started sharing images and videos because everything was just so pretty. Then it started to resonate with people.
I got feedback from people saying, “I didn’t know that was a job,” or “it gives me hope that I could still do something when my kids leave the house.” There are people saying “I don’t fit in either.”
That is what’s kept me going. I really want to encourage people to consider different ways to live. If the 9 to 5 is torture for you, like it was for me, there are so many other options. It doesn’t have to be a fire lookout, but there are a lot of different ways to live in the world that can nourish your soul.
I would encourage anyone to do this if they feel a calling, but it’s pretty important that you’re prepared to spend plenty of time being uncomfortable physically and even emotionally. Make sure that you really know what it’s like to be outside alone, figuring things out by yourself, dealing with the weather and the critters. That’s probably more important than having experience watching for fires.
Make sure you know what it’s like to truly be alone, and that you can handle it. Sometimes there are no distractions up here. It’s a great opportunity to work through things, especially grief, but it can be very hard.
It kind of gets in your blood, being up here alone, outside, with nature.
Recently I went down to town. I hadn’t even been gone a whole day yet, but when I was there something happened — a certain smell, maybe — and suddenly I was longing to be out in the woods.
I’ve always flailed around in the world and figured out a way to make it to the next paycheck — which I still do when I’m not up here. I feel like I’ve now found something that works for me, and I would like to do it until I cannot walk up the stairs. The first person I replaced was in his mid-80s — he died within that next year. I’d like to be like that. I’m going to be here as long as there are humans doing this job.