A Day in the Life of a TikTok-Famous Fire Lookout

“I have always been most comfortable being alone and in nature."

fire lookout tower at night during meteor shower
Photo by Brig Malessa
Photo by Brig Malessa

For some, hiding out in a secluded cabin up in the mountains, on the lookout for signs of impending wildfire, is unsettling. For others, it’s idyllic. There’s a rugged romance attached to the lifestyle, no doubt rooted in our obsession with national parks and desire to travel to out-of-reach destinations. The pull is so strong that travelers have even begun booking stays at repurposed fire lookout towers, scoring the ultimate, no-civilization-in-sight stargazing experiences.

Brig Malessa, otherwise known as @briggygee on TikTok, shares what it’s like to be a fire lookout to a community of 166.7k followers. She’ll unintentionally make you reconsider your own (safe) life choices as she points her camera at 360-degree sunset views and morning coffee sessions with Buddy the mountain goat. But the TikToker also showcases the less glamorous side of things, whether that means hand washing laundry with snowmelt, going to the bathroom in an outhouse, or receiving monthly groceries from pack mules (depending on who you ask, it’s still kind of glam).

“I have always been most comfortable being alone and in nature,” says Malessa, who works for the US Forest Service and is currently on watch at a tower in Oregon. Prior to her current gig, Malessa was stationed in Idaho—“The storms and clouds were spectacular, beyond description,” she says—and Montana, which became her personal favorite for the remoteness alone. It may have taken 27 miles on horseback to get there, but it earned her a summer of peace and quiet on a mountaintop.

The fire lookout begins her 12-hour work day with a radio into dispatch. She then spends the majority of her time monitoring the weather and her view shed for any signs of fire, especially when it comes to lightning. “When you spot a smoke, you use maps and communicate with other lookouts to determine an accurate location,” she explains. “When a fire is present, you may communicate with aircraft working the fire as well as fire crews on the ground.” On good weather days, Malessa carries out basic maintenance in the lookout, in some cases helping relay radio traffic for fire or trail crews. “There’s also lots of time for hobbies,” she says. “Mine are art, reading, photography, and generally piddling around and enjoying the solitude.”

Malessa joins a legacy of honorable forest rangers who have been protecting our trees since the early twentieth century. It was the Great Fire of 1910, which burned through 3,000,000 acres of land across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, that really spurred the Forest Service to draft the comprehensive set of fire detection parameters still in effect today. And, perhaps because seclusion in the great outdoors often sparks creativity, famous writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean have been drawn to the job.

At Malessa’s current setup, there’s no running water or electricity aside from a solar panel and a small inverter that’s capable of charging small items. And because she resides in a non-motorized, designated wilderness area, it’s only accessible by foot or hoof. In the case of an emergency, the Forest Service would authorize a helicopter to pick Brig up—however, the conditions would have to be just right, i.e. daylight hours and adequate visibility. Chainsaws aren’t even allowed in the area, so firewood must be cut with saws.

Malessa’s TikToks are filled with nuggets of fascinating information that might come in handy, should you choose to dwell in the wilderness—or not. You’d never know that lightning stools, for example, are traditional features at fire lookouts. Wood and glass are poor conductors of electricity, so these wooden chairs contain glass insulators on their legs to protect you when your tower inevitably takes a direct hit during an electrical storm.

Though the days are filled with tangible challenges, Malessa has found that loneliness isn’t one of them. “I have lived and recreated in a very solitary fashion for a very long time and am far more comfortable alone—this may in part be in relation to a late diagnosis of autism—so the only times I feel uncomfortable here is when there are visitors,” Malessa says. While some fire lookouts can welcome hundreds of visitors a day, Malessa luckily received only about a dozen last summer.

But it turns out her TikTok community has provided a different kind of support. “Social interaction has been a lifelong struggle for me,” Malessa says. “It turns out that online friendships are much easier and more enjoyable to me than face to face friendships.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram