SEDALIA, Colo. — If you've ever made the hike up to the Devil's Head Fire Lookout Tower over the past 35 years, chances are you've met Billy Ellis.
Well into his 80s, Ellis, officially retired from the U.S. Forest Service over the weekend. A retirement celebration was held for Ellis and his wife Margaret on Sunday.
For 35 summers, Ellis made the commute up the steps to 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.
"For 35 seasons, Billy climbed 143 steps to the tower where he scanned the horizon for smokes while engaging the public in our work. We did some rough calculations and learned that the cumulative feet climbed amount to 1,274,000 feet. That is the equivalent of climbing the Empire State Building 876 times, Mt. Elbert, a Colorado 14er 88 times, and Mt. Everest 43 times," the U.S. Forest Service told Next with Kyle Clark in a statement.
It’s a relatively short hike from the trailhead before you reach the steep staircase to the fire lookout. Ellis greeted tens of thousands of visitors to the historic spot every year.
“Last year, we got over 27,000 that made it to the top,” Ellis told NEXT in 2017.
Between all those visits, Ellis picked up the binoculars. He scanned the skies for columns of smoke and relied on a tool two decades older than him to do his job.
“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 smoke, you just sight it like you would a rifle,” Ellis said, demonstrating how the device worked.
Between 2004 and 2017, Ellis spotted 76 fires from the Devils Head Fire Lookout. Ellis admitted he takes pride in being the first to report a fire.
Each day around noon, Ellis locked up the tower and headed 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 more than 50 years, Margaret.
"As impressive as all of [his work] sounds, what we are most inspired by is Billy’s interactions with the public. We know from our trail counters that Devil’s Head attracts over 50,000 visitors per year. What we don’t know is how many of those people were inspired to pursue a career in the forest service because of you, and how many treated the land a little better because of him," the Forest Service told us.
There is a new lookout in place running the tower. His name is Matt.
He took over in May and says the number one question he gets from hikers out there is" "Where's Billy?"
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