Forest fire lookouts were occasional features of forest reserves in the 1920s. There was a lookout tower in Riding Mountain Dominion Forest at Gilbert Plains, Manitoba in the northwest corner of the reserve. Forest fire lookouts were rare in national parks until the late 1930s when the Dominion Forest service introduced a system of standard plan towers throughout the western parks. Generally these lookouts were comprised of an octagonal cabin, eight feet in diameter, perched on top of a 40 or 50 foot steel tower. The cabins were prefabricated out of plywood to facilitate their installation on the site. Plywood panels formed the lower part of the cabin, while a series of window sashes filled the upper portion. The cabins were constructed so that the window sash could slide down into the lower portion of the cabin. Although the towers were introduced by the Forest Service, the design came from the Engineering Services Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. The parks were responsible for erecting the towers and the operation of them came under the jurisdiction of the park warden service. Each tower was connected to a district warden station by a telephone and the lookout man reported to the district warden. In the event of smoke being detected, the lookout would inform the warden who then was responsible for organizing the response.
Around ten towers were built in Riding Mountain National Park in 1938-1939. The exact number is difficult to determine because some of these were built outside the park boundary and some of the names have more than one possible affiliation. In 1949 the Rolling River, and the Heron Creek towers were built, each associated with a similarly named warden station. These lookouts differed slightly from the earlier towers in that their cupolas had horizontal drop siding on the walls in place of the plywood panels.
Fire lookouts were largely phased out in the 1970s and many of the lookouts were removed. Only five remain in the park: Baldy, Clear Lake (pictured here) and Sugarloaf, all built in 1938, and Heron Creek and Rolling River dating from 1949. Most have lost the associated cabin that provided living quarters for the lookout man with the exception of Sugarloaf which is part of the warden station complex bearing the same name. Visited in early August 2018.
- Jason Paul Sailer