Air surveillance by planes and helicopters, plus electronic devices such as lightening strike indicators play a role in protective services warning us of wildfire these days, but in earlier eras our fire watch was less sophisticated.
This photo, taken in 1974, shows the fire lookout hut established on Mount Empress, fortunately captured for the record prior to it being burned down in 1976.
The B.C. Forest Service operated these lookout huts on mountain peaks from the 1930s up to the 1970s.
If you’ve got strong leg muscles and sturdy boots, you can reach Mount Empress by an old logging road off Sooke River Road, or by Mt. Shepherd Road, hiking upwards from Harbourview Road.
It used to be kind of fun to visit with the summer fire watcher, especially on Empress, where you could view an incredible vista of range upon range of hills.
To communicate with the B.C. Forest Service headquarters, the fire watcher used two-way radio.
The men hired to be fire watch in the early years would have to pack in their food supplies on their backs, augmented by other personnel packing supplies to them weekly through the summer months. The Water they would carry from whatever stream they could find closest to the summit.
The lookout hut on Mount Shepherd (now called Manuel Quimper), placed there around 1930, was a lot easier to reach, and when it was destroyed a new one was built in the 1950s, which still stands.
Mount Matheson also had a fire lookout hut.
In 1989, though the fire lookout cabin was no longer on Empress, Phoebe Dunbar at Edward Milne Community School organized a helicopter trip gourmet picnic at the summit.
Dunbar joined in with the museum and so it was that Sally Bullen (at that time president) and I went by helicopter up the Sooke River valley, loaded with goodies intended for the feast on the mountain, to feed the 20 participants who’d each paid $100 for the experience.
As the helicopter hovered, we unloaded; then they left to pick up passengers. We laid out the fine china and crystal goblets on linen cloths, and those who didn’t get left behind, when the helicopter developed engine problems, had a wonderful dinner.
One of our fun memories on the mountain was the chocolate dipped strawberries prepared by the museum’s chef at the time, Jackie Chamberlain.
Imagine what the lonely fire watchman who once stayed in this remote, windswept cabin would have thought if he could have seen our elaborate feast!
Elida Peers is the historian of Sooke Region Museum.