85-year-old still running fire lookout after 33 years

Billy Gene Ellis has spotted 76 fires from his lookout. He gets hundreds of visitors every day.

KUSA - The morning commute would be stress-free were it not so strenuous.

“It’s quite a workout,” Billy Ellis said, taking another step up the steep, red staircase.

Ellis climbed with his head down and hands gripped to the railings. He stopped each time he reached a new landing of the stairwell.

“Yeah, to get my breath,” Ellis said, leaning against the railing.

He paused for another moment before continuing the climb and finishing the commute to his office, the Devils Head Fire Lookout.

“You’re at 9,748 feet,” Ellis said, standing beside the lookout.

The 85-year-old Ellis has made the same commute for 33 summers.

“Here in Colorado, we’re the last one left with the Forest Service,” Ellis said.

Five months out of the year, Ellis runs the last remaining fire tower operated by the U.S. Forest Service. The tower is in Pike National Forest about 19 miles southwest of Sedalia. It’s a relatively short hike from the trailhead before you reach the steep staircase to the fire lookout. Ellis greets tens of thousands of visitors to the historic spot ever year.

“Last year, we got over 27,000 that made it to the top,” Ellis said.

Between all those visits, Ellis picks up the binoculars. He scans the skies for columns of smoke and relies on a tool two decades older than his 85-year-old eyes.

“Osborne Fire Finder,” Ellis said, pointing to a circular, topographic map mounted on a table in the middle of the fire lookout.

“When you see a smoke, you just sight it like you would a rifle,” Ellis said, demonstrating how the device worked.

Since 2004, Ellis has spotted 76 fires from the Devils Head Fire Lookout. The last was the Puma Fire on May 14th that burned just 30-50 acres. Ellis admitted he takes pride in being the first to report a fire.

“It’s just a feeling you get,” he said. “You did it again.”

Over the years, Ellis has missed only a few fires.

“And I’m devastated for days after that,” he said with a laugh.

Ellis is usually in the best spot to see just about everything, for better or worse. The tornado that touched down in 2015 made a lasting impression.

“Got religion that day!” Ellis laughed.

The fire tower Ellis works in each day is like a museum in the mountains. Old pictures, interesting facts, and answers to frequently asked questions are posted to the walls.

“They used that from 1912 to 1919,” Ellis said, showing off a picture of the first enclosed fire tower built at Devils Head.

Ellis is happy to answer questions he’s answered countless times before. He’ll share the history of the fire tower until it’s time to take a break.

“Pueblo dispatch, this is Devil’s Head Tower,” Ellis talked into the radio. “I’m going out of service for lunch.”

Each day around noon, Ellis locks up the tower and heads back down 143 steps to the cabin a short walk from the staircase. It’s the home he’s shared each summer with his wife of 56 years, Margaret. Up in the fire tower, Billy does most of the talking, but down below, Margaret is the chatterbox.

“When I’m around he can’t hardly get a word in!” Margaret said. The two of them laughed.

Talking helps pass the time in the cabin, and so does Margaret’s obsession with Star Wars.

“Well, Darth Vader is my favorite,” Margaret said. “My kids tell me I’m too short for Chewbacca!” She laughed.

Margaret said she saw the original Star Wars in Modesto, California back in 1977.

“I stood in line four hours with six kids,” she remembered.

Margaret said she has 12 barrels full of Star Wars memorabilia.

“I have a Chewbacca from 1977,” she smiled.

Billy’s job in the cabin is just to listen.

“I don’t even know what she’s talking about,” Billy said as his wife laughed.

“He’s never seen it!” Margaret said. “He’s never seen it!”

Billy and Margaret share a love for the outdoors, and they’re convinced their post in the Pike National Forest keeps them young. Neither is ready to give up their oasis in the mountains.

“And I know the day will come, and it’ll be really sad but, while we’re here, we’re going to totally enjoy it,” Margaret said.

Billy Ellis will never tire of his morning commute, no matter how strenuous.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said.

Scanning the skies from 9,748 feet will never feel like work.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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