Meet the Unlikely TikTok Star Who Hunts Wildfires From the Top of a Mountain

Meet the Unlikely TikTok Star Who Hunts Wildfires From the Top of a Mountain
Screenshot: Gizmodo

“To the people who think I’m lying about not having running water: Come, come, come see my bathroom,” Kelsey Sims says in her latest TikTok. The video, posted from Sims’s home in a fire tower in New Mexico, walks viewers through the two bathroom options available at her lookout: a vault toilet (waste goes into a container that’s cleaned out, has a urinal, has a moth problem), or a historic outhouse (waste goes directly into the ground, “there are no moths and the views are better because there’s no door”).

Sims, 26, posts regular dispatches from her job as a fire lookout working for the Forest Service on top of a mountain in New Mexico, where she scans the horizon each day for signs of wildfires. She’s amassed more than 132,000 followers, and it’s not surprising — her account is uniquely addicting. Her posts include footage of stunning 360-degree views of sunsets from the tower, foggy forests, and beautiful wildflowers, combined with unique insights into a job most Americans might not even know exists in the modern age. Sims also has a dynamic personality, which has also contributed to keeping me hooked.

In one TikTok, she gives a full rundown of her daily routine, starting off with a quip that she has a “horrible commute travelling to my radio” just a few feet away in her tower. (That TikTok has 1.5 million views). Another TikTok explains how her lookout tower has a lightning rod for safety, but historically, fire lookout operators sat on “lightning benches” — a special bench with a glass insulator on the feet to protect the person in case of a lightning strike — during storms.

“So basically you just sit here and question your life,” Sims narrates over footage of her sitting on the lightning bench in her tower. “Maybe get religious at some points.” (4.8 million views.)

With wildfire season in full swing across the West, Sims’ work has taken on added importance. The National Interagency Fire Centre raised the national risk level to five, its highest level and the earliest it’s done that on record. Sims’ TikToks are fun, sure. But they can also educate people about wildfire safety and appreciate the outdoors — and maybe even get viewers to consider staffing a lookout themselves. I got Sims on the phone to talk about her job, her TikTok account, and what people think she does all day in her tower. Our discussion has been lightly edited for clarity.

Molly Taft, Gizmodo: So, this is a pretty unusual job. How on Earth did you get here?

Kelsey Sims: I never planned to get into fire, never in my wildest dreams. I went to college for music and environmental studies. I accepted an internship with the Forest Service as a wilderness ranger. I did a little too much work for my internship and had to find a way to fill the time. I’m from the Midwest, so I had never heard of wildland fire, but I took some classes online and shadowed some people and was like, oh, this is interesting. After my internship, I got on a [firefighting] crew in Montana and did a season way in the backcountry, and it was really fun.

One day, they asked me to fill in for a lookout while they went into town to resupply. I was like, sure. I had no idea what that really meant. I went up and it was the most peaceful experience you could imagine. I was like, I think I’m going to go this route instead.

Gizmodo: How long have you been working at this specific tower?

Sims: This is my second year in this tower, so officially two full seasons in the tower I’m currently in. I did a couple of shorter stints at other towers before. I got here in April of last year.

I was living at home in Ohio [at the start of the pandemic], and I had just lost the two jobs I was trying to do to just get by. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life and I was like, you know what, maybe I’ll go be a lookout now. I might as well isolate myself on top of a mountain and not get covid. I had neighbours die — it was really bad where I was. I came out here, and I was in the middle of nowhere. I’m so thankful and blessed that I didn’t have the hardships other people had, but it was wild going from that extreme to literally just not even having to deal with any of that except wearing a mask when I go to town to get groceries.

Although, I had so many visitors last year. On Memorial Day, I had 69 people come by.

Gizmodo: Yeah, I heard a lot of national and state parks got swamped last summer because that’s all anyone could do for fun.

Sims: I had so many people. I saw someone every day. I still see people, but it’s definitely been quieter this summer.

Gizmodo: What about when fire season ends? I assume you’re not just living in the tower all year.

Sims: Lookouts are seasonal jobs, so we work six months out of the year — it ends in mid-September. I just hung out in Colorado last year and adopted a dog because that seemed normal.

Gizmodo: I adopted a dog too around that time last year. Seems to be a trend. I’ve seen your dog in your TikToks, she’s so cute! I’m surprised they let you have a dog in the tower.

Sims: I’ve never seen a dog like my dog. She’s buck wild looking. The National Park Service are pretty anti-dog, but the Forest Service seems to be a little more chill about it. Most districts let people have dogs up here, which is awesome. I feel so much safer.

Gizmodo: So walk me through a usual day for you (and your dog).

Sims: I’m required to look for fires 15 to 20 minutes every hour, thoroughly scanning the sky, looking at the ridgelines. Apart from that, every day is really different — it depends so much on what the weather is doing, if there’s lightning, precipitation. I’m always talking to crews on the ground, warning them, especially during monsoon season so they don’t get trapped in a flash flood, things like that. Visitors are always coming up, asking questions. A lot of my day is dealing with that or acting as a repeater for crews on the ground. We also do a lot of weather data collecting as well. I read up on all the fire reports to keep informed.

It’s kind of a busy job, in a sense. It’s not high pressure, but we’re always doing something up here. It’s funny because people are always like, wow, it must be nice just to sit up there all day. I’m like, yeah, I wish it was like that.

Gizmodo: I think when people hear about your job, they think you just look for fire all day, but it sounds like you’re involving yourself a lot in what it takes to keep people safe and keep tabs on what’s going on.

Sims: Yeah, exactly. I think you can make this job as intense or as not intense as you want. The number one duty for us is to be a resource for firefighting crews on the ground and hikers in the area and inform people about what’s going on. There’s so much behind-the-scenes work we do that people don’t know about.

Someone the other day was like, do you go hunting for your food and if you spot a fire while you’re hunting you call it in? And I was like, what?

Gizmodo: They thought you hunt for your own food?

Sims: Yeah. I was like, my god. It was so funny. I’ve had hunters come up to my tower at like 6 a.m. to show me their kills but I’m like, eh.

Gizmodo: Like, no, I go to a grocery store.

Sims: Yeah, it’s only an hour and a half away.

Gizmodo: This might be an obvious question, but how do you look for fire? Do you just scan for smoke, or are you looking for other things, too?

Sims: It’s actually kind of tricky! There are so many different variables that can get in the way like haze, low-lying clouds, precipitation, so many different things.

The number one thing I usually notice is something being out of place. We scan the area so much that 90% of the time, I automatically notice when something is different on the terrain. First it’s just noticing a discrepancy, then getting out the binoculars and being like alright, this is a separate cloud formation, what are the characteristics of this column or cloud?

A lot of times, we have these things called water dogs that are basically weird rain clouds that look identical to smoke, and it can be really confusing. Sometimes you gotta just watch and wait and see if the cloud disappears and see if it’s actually smoke. There’s a lot of guesses and checks. I call my other lookout so much, just like, hey, so not quite sure what this is…

Gizmodo: Is he stationed nearby?

Sims: He works on a ridgeline that’s like 64 km away from me, but we do have some overlapping land. He and I both worked in fire for like, four years, five years. If we can throw ideas off each other, we can usually come to a pretty educated guess. It can be kind of tricky, though.

The wind has a big effect, too. If there’s no wind, smoke will be standing straight up. If there’s wind it can be pushed over in a canyon, so you might not be able to see it. My recommendation is to always wear polarised sunglasses. Fire just pops so much more.

Gizmodo: So if you see something that looks like something, who do you call?

Sims: Once I identify the fire, I’ll get the degree at which the fire is located from my tower. Then you have to know all the landmarks in the areas, the ridgelines, it’s critical to know that stuff, so you can count the distance away from your tower the fire is. I fill out a quick little form, and I’ll call dispatch and inform them of what I’m seeing. They’ll send a crew out, and then I’ll talk to them about what I’m seeing, including any weather changes. I’m kind of their eyes and ears to keep them safe on the ground, essentially.

Gizmodo: Some people would be kind of freaked out to be in your position. Are you ever scared that a big fire is going to come into your neck of the woods? Do you ever feel scared by the intensity of this job or the danger that it poses?

Sims: From working on the fire line and having that experience being hands-on next to fire, that fear has completely gone away. Even if a fire is [1.6 kilometres] away, there’s a lot of variables that would have to happen to have it come near my tower. My tower is super well-placed. There’s barely any vegetation and there’s an old burn scar where a fire previously was, so if a fire came I would just sit in my tower, most likely. It’s going to be way easier than going down a steep mountain road with really thick timber and lots of vegetation that could fall over and trap me. It’s really never a concern.

Gizmodo: I just did a piece on climate-safe houses. It’s wild how vegetation can change how safe a structure is from fire.

Sims: Yeah, when I worked in Montana we did a lot of house assessments, telling the public about how to make the land around their house safe from fire. I’m always thinking about that whenever I look at apartments out West, like, hmm, maybe not that one.

Gizmodo: Obviously, climate change is affecting fires over time. Is this something that you’ve noticed, or is this on your mind? Any thoughts on how this job might change over the next decade?

Sims: I’ve been working in fire for four or five years now, so I have noticed a change. Things are drier, hotter, warmer, fire season is going longer and getting more intense. As far as my job changing in the future, I’m not sure if it’s going to change that much. It’s more a question of being prepared for a potentially longer season and being as ready as I can be on an individual level to provide as much help as I can. It is a possibility that things are going to get a lot worse. For me personally, I don’t think it’s going to affect my job that much, but it’s definitely a concern right now for people in the industry.

Gizmodo: Why did you decide to start a TikTok?

Sims: One, literally no one understands what I do for a living. My friends and family were so confused. It was partially to shed light on it. Two, I had so many videos and photos I wanted to share somewhere, so I was like, even if I don’t get followers, who cares? I just want to post about it for myself.

And three, because no one knows about this job. I thought it would be good to put a young face on lookout towers, rebrand the stereotype that it’s just old people sitting in towers enjoying the weather. I’m on the younger side of the spectrum compared to most lookouts, and it’s been really exciting to engage people online and use the resources there to explain what we do.

Gizmodo: Are you surprised so many people are watching your videos?

Sims: I had a feeling my account would take off. There’s just no information about towers on social media, so there’s an opportunity there. But I have been surprised by the positive responses. I rarely ever get hate. More than anything, it’s been humbling to hear that people care about what I do and support what we’re doing. I feel so thankful to be able to share what I do and what I see every day. It’s been so nice.

Gizmodo: How long do you think you’ll want to keep doing this? Can you see yourself doing this for a really long time, or have you put a mental stop on, like, when you’ll need to go back to civilisation?

Sims: I don’t ever want to go back to civilisation, honestly. That’s just not my vibe. To be honest, I think the factor for when I end my lookout career is when I can’t afford my bills. The pay isn’t super wonderful, but it’s survivable. There’s not a lot of room to grow as a career, but I’m trying to see what I can make of it. Even if it’s, like, I visit lookouts on the side or volunteer, I’d love to keep lookouts in my life. But it comes down to the money, as crappy as that is.

Gizmodo: That’s like a lot of seasonal jobs, where you get to a point where it’s like, well, this might be it.

Sims: Yeah, and you have to know that with seasonal jobs, especially as a fire lookout. You basically go house shopping, choose your tower, and then you’re like, alright, am I going to be a nomad in this tower for the rest of my life?

My personal dream, and who knows if this will ever fly, is to work on trails and become more of a local face just for the wilderness I work in and make myself more visible as a resource to locals. I would like to make lookouts be more public, in that sense.

Gizmodo: Do you ever get lonely?

Sims: I specifically chose a tower where I knew I’d see people and would have cell service. I’ve worked in towers that are super remote and had no phone service, and that was super lonely and the worst for my mental health. I was like, I love this job, it would be amazing if I could see people. I’m never lonely up here, though, especially now that I have a dog. If I ever get lonely I’ll just call or FaceTime someone. But at other lookouts, loneliness is definitely an issue you run into.

Over time you get used to it, though. I will admit that when I first came up last year, I was a little uneasy by how quiet it was and a little on edge. I wasn’t used to having so much quiet time to myself. By the end of the summer, it was the deepest form of solitude imaginable, and it was the deepest healing imaginable. If you get in your head, you can just step back and be like, I’m living on top of a mountain, look around. This is such a crazy cool experience that not many people get to have, so enjoy it.