Video Game Inspires Western Mass. Teen To Visit Fire Towers, Develop Love Of Nature

Mar 17, 2021

High school senior Jack Kelley of Hadley, Massachusetts, has observed a milestone few other teens could claim. Inspired by a videogame he played as a preteen, Jack began to visit fire towers, or fire lookouts. 

Kelley shared his story on Twitter with a post that's been "liked" more than 20,000 times.

Kelley said he wants to study conservation and forestry and will soon be attending UMass Amherst. He spoke with NEPM's Carrie Healy about how the adventure began.

Jack Kelley: Five years ago, I was in seventh grade — I was 12 years old — and I played Firewatch on my PS4. I played it over the course of only one or two days, and I just fell in love with the idea of being a lookout.

I still can't describe exactly what I love about it, but just the design of the lookouts themselves — the fire lookouts just spoke to me in some way.

So I started doing a little research on them, and discovered a whole world of things I never thought about, or known about, before.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: What did you do next?

I asked my dad if we could go visit one. I saw there is one in Shelburne. So I just said to my dad, "Hey, this Sunday, can we hike for this?"

And he was shocked, because it was always a fight to get me and my sister to go hiking, and do things outside like that. He immediately said yes.

That was February 28, 2016. That same year, when I was 12, I also joined the Forest Fire Lookout Association as its youngest member.

You've taken inspiration from that game, and you've made some life choices based upon it. What has it given you being outside, and hiking to — how many fire towers?

Let me see. I think the count that I came to was 239 distinct standing towers and tower sites. Counting repeats on my spreadsheet, it's a total of 308.

I always liked nature. It sounds kind of silly, but I never had, like, a reason to be in nature like it was boring to me on its own.

But visiting towers was a reason to go outside. It was reason to hike; a reason to see all these places. And Firewatch, and visiting lookouts, gave me an appreciation for the natural world that I didn't have before.

And it's made me want to work really hard to make sure that other people have that opportunity, and to preserve nature.

A fire tower the Kelleys visited during their five-year quest.
Credit Submitted Photo

Were you ever absolutely shocked by what you found? I imagine parking the car, hiking, and having some idea of what you're going to come upon for a tower at the end, but just being completely blown over by what you found?

Yeah, there's been a few moments like that over the years. There is this one tower we visited in western New York in 2017. I was going through some stuff at that time.

We visited the tower, and I discovered that it had a gate about a quarter of the way up it, so you couldn't climb all the way up. I just started crying. I broke down. I was really in a bad place. And that was a pretty shocking moment for me.

A view from a fire tower in western Massachusetts.
Credit Submitted Photo

But there have also been great times, like this one in Vermont, where you don't really expect to get anything out of it. You expect it might be just some sort of forested, grown-in summit. And the views are just incredible. The world is a surprising place — and so you're generally going to get surprised.

Are you going to continue to check out fire towers, or was this a chapter that has a beginning, middle and end?

Now — this, this. That reminds me of what my parents would say when I was first into it. They were thinking it was going to be something I'd be interested in, and move on from — but no. I honestly don't see any way that I'm not going to have at least a passing interest in lookouts for the rest of my life, really.

A view looking up at the underside of a fire tower.
Credit Submitted Photo
John Kelley drove his son to hundreds of fire towers over the course of five years.
Credit Submitted Photo

You had a constant companion with this — your dad, right?

Yep. The only towers he hasn't visited with me are ones where it's been repeat visits.

Is he going to continue to go on these with you now that you presumably have your license, and you'll be going to college and growing up?

I hope so. We're not going to be physically as close to each other as we always have been. If there is, like, a final tower that I go to with him, it's not going to be because we decided it's going to be the last one. It'll just be by circumstance.

Driving to Maine for six hours after, like, a 16-hour workday, just the ridiculous stuff that he does for me because he loves me — I'm not ever going to forget that. And I want to spend as much time with him as I can doing this, because we both love it, and I love doing it with him.