More than a career ended Tuesday when Bill Ellis retired as fire lookout at the Devil’s Head Lookout Tower northwest of Colorado Springs.
It was the end of an era — a way of life — for the 87-year-old Ellis, who was in his 35th season working atop Devil’s Head, north of Pikes Peak in Douglas County.
“Being the first to report a smoke, that’s a big thing for me,” Ellis told Gazette reporter Seth Boster in 2017.
Devil’s Head is among Colorado’s historical lookout towers, most of them standing abandoned, unmanned in the wake of technological advances to fire monitoring. Along the Front Range, the white-bearded Ellis in his Forest Service uniform was the last of his kind.
For 35 seasons, Billy climbed 143 steps to the Devil’s Head Lookout Tower where he scanned the horizon for smokes while engaging the public in our work.The PSICC and the rest of the Forest Service extend our deepest gratitude to Billy and his family. Enjoy retirement! pic.twitter.com/OYuHCUWXXG— USFS_Pike&San Isabel (@PSICC_NF) June 25, 2019
“For 35 seasons, Billy climbed 143 steps to the Devil’s Head Lookout Tower where he scanned the horizon for smokes while engaging the public in our work,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a post on its Pike and San Isabel National Forests’ Facebook page.
“Rough calculations show that the cumulative feet climbed amount to 1,274,000 feet. That is the equivalent of climbing the Empire State Building 876 times, Mount Elbert, a Colorado 14er, 88 times, and Mount Everest 43 times.
“The PSICC and the rest of the Forest Service extend our deepest gratitude to Billy and his family. Thank you for all of your hard work, Billy. Enjoy retirement. We’ll miss you!”
Ellis held a sagelike reputation. Ever since 1984, when he and his wife made the cabin at the tower’s base their summer home, he had built an uncanny knowledge of the vast wilderness in his panoramic view.
Firefighters spoke of him in legendary terms. They told stories of embarking into the forest, flashing mirrors to reveal their locations. Ellis would radio in, they said, with directions to move however many miles north or south, east or west, leading them to a single boulder or trunk smoldering from a lightning strike.
“It’s like he can see through the trees,” said daughter Bronwyn Goehle, who spent years as his lookout assistant after growing up at the cabin with four siblings.
For an active man like Ellis, retirement doesn’t come easy. His wife, Margaret Ellis, said Tuesday that she and her husband had been talking about retirement for a while. Now, she said, they will finally have time to tend to their garden.
“He was ready,” said Margaret. “He’s OK with it.”
Ellis’ wife reminisced on the days when she would trek up to the fire-watcher’s lookout — sometimes hauling six of their 11 children with her.
“I just miss it,” she said. “I really loved it up there. I was his alternate lookout for the first two years when we came back in ’84.”
It’s been a wonderful 35 years.”
The Gazette’s Liz Henderson contributed to this report.