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A Three-Generational Women's Lookout Team

by Joan Burton

Pamela Olmsted Bobroff remembers serving with her mother and grandmother as part of a three-generational lookout team during World War II as “the best time in my life.” Paralyzed with MS today, she says with a smile, “The majesty of the wilderness will always be with me.”

“I’m a living artifact,” she added, laughing.

For three summers, 1943, 1944, and 1945 Virginia Olmsted, her mother, Mrs. Robert Boutelle, and teen-aged Pam worked together as Lookout Observers, watching for forest fires and enemy planes. Once as a test of their observation skills in 1943 on Suntop, the Forest Service arranged to have a captured Japanese Zero flown over the lookout. The Olmsted ladies called it in correctly.

But before that they had to convince the District ranger they could do the job. A letter to Virginia, dated March 30, 1943, said in part, “During conference the use of women on the protection stations was discussed and considered. It was decided that on the high hazard points and where fire-fighting was one of the duties that women could not be used. At the same time it was clearly indicated that women would play an important part in the scheme of beating the man power shortage by acting as cooks, registrars, time keepers, telephone operators, and such.”

Somehow Olmsted, a foreign language teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, persuaded the Snoqualmie National Forest Service ranger to take a chance on her other capacities anyway. For the salary of $120 a month the Service got the combination of 65-year old Grandma, cook and woodchopper; Virginia, fire finder and plane spotter; and teenaged Pamela, water carrier, and flag raiser. They were the only three-woman team in Region Six, encompassing Washington and Oregon.

Silhouettes of enemy planes were posted on a wall chart which the women studied as part of their Advance Warning System training. Their first station was Suntop, 5271 feet, on the north side of Mt. Rainier. 13-year-old Pam slept outside in a tent and made a pet of a ground squirrel, Mrs. Crumbpacker, who came for breakfast every day.

Pam remembers they had no time to read books, and were allowed only a few minutes at the end of the day for calls on the telephone, but that the ranger asked that the women paint the building’s exterior in their spare time and they did it. Rangers for later assignments liked the look so much they asked for the same service for those buildings.

In the summer of 1944 the trio reported for duty to Miner’s Ridge in the Naches Ranger District above Bumping Lake. Again Virginia turned in temperature, humidity and plane reports and phoned in checks of the surrounding forest every half hour. Pam at 14 could spell her mother for some of these responsibilities. Her new squirrel pet was called Mrs. Stuffy.

The women provided all their own food and prepared their own meals, but Mrs. Bautelle’s cooking was so good she attracted inspection visits from rangers at mealtimes. They had very little fresh food, so they relied on canned and bagged basic foods. Since there was road access, tourists would occasionally bring in fresh fruit, but Pam remembers that the lookouts closed before the blueberries ripened.

Because the snow banks around the lookouts had melted, they carried up to 6 gallons of water a day for at least a mile and a half for cooking and washing, but couldn’t spare enough to wash clothes, so wore the same clothes most of the summer.

Sheep and Basque sheepherders were the new element on Miner’s Ridge. The animals devoured meadow flowers, but Pam remembers that the alpine flowers came back again once the sheep had departed. Virginia’s French and Spanish skills enabled her to communicate with the Basques.

In 1945 the three-generation team hiked up to Goat Peak on American Ridge, where they resumed lookout duty. They checked their surrounding hills and valleys every half hour, but the plane-spotting requirement was no longer needed, On Goat Peak Pam witnessed a long lightning storm with a strike close by, and once they did see a lightning strike start a small fire. Pam and Virginia searched for its location in rough terrain in order to call it in, and Pam remembers that she found it by “sniffing it out.” Her mother was determined to put it out before it smoldered and started a big fire.

By late 1945 they waited eagerly for news of the war, hoping it was over. To the east in Hanford secret activities were going on that would end it, but they had no way of knowing that. With the end of World War II women lookouts were no longer needed, and the trio returned to their homes remembering their high elevation summers of service to their country.