So This Is What They Call Living The High-Life


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Categories: Life Stories

They saw it coming: the mushroom cloud of smoke.

Dabney Tompkins and Alan Colley were on their deck enjoying the view when Stouts Creek Fire broke out earlier this month. They’d read about moments like this - spotting a forest fire from a 40-foot-high tower - but nothing could have prepared them.

They weren’t staffing a fire lookout, after all. They were at home.

Treehouse without the tree

Fire Lookout-2

Alan Colley (left) and Dabney Tompkins wouldn’t trade their life above the trees for anything.

Tompkins and Colley’s lives changed course on a ferry ride several years ago. Quite literally stumbling upon a book about fire lookouts used by the U.S. Forest Service, they learned how the structures on stilts were used to spot forest fires throughout the 20th century. Now largely replaced by satellites, very few lookouts are still standing.

Tompkins and Colley, who had downsized from their big Dallas estate to 1,400 square feet in Portland, wanted to know more.

“It was a magical moment that the book sort of fell off the shelf to us,” Colley recalls. “We called the ranger district and said why don’t we rent this thing? That was the beginning.”

The urbanites rented several fire lookouts before purchasing 160 acres of meadow and forest land in rural Oregon, known as Summit Prairie. With the help of a local builder and engineer, their “treehouse without the tree” was completed in 2010.

For the first few years, it was just a weekend getaway, but those weekends quickly turned into something more.

“About a year and half ago, we decided to be totally irresponsible and quit our jobs and move here,” Tompkins explains. “We were just going to do it for one year because we thought this might just be too isolated, too boring, too rustic. But then we got down here and we started to meet people and really enjoy the rhythm of it.”

Life on the prairie