Proposed features/fire lookouts

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Fire Lookouts
Status: Proposed (under way)
Proposed by: Jake Low
Applies to: node area
Definition: Fire lookouts are structures used by firefighting personnel to spot wildfires and monitor them as they develop. Lookouts are usually built on high vantage points in the wilderness, and staff often live on site during the fire season.
Rendered as: no special rendering required
Drafted on: 2020-09-09
RFC start: 2020-11-10


This proposal suggests introducing two new tag values:

Fire lookouts are sometimes but not always towers, and thus a new tower:type=fire_lookout tag wouldn't be an appropriate way to map them. Additionally, some lookout structures are historic and no longer used for fire spotting, and some non-lookout structures are used for fire spotting (such as towers), hence the need for two tags.


Over the last century, fire lookout towers have been an important tool for land managers to detect and monitor wildfires. They are usually located deep in wilderness areas and often inaccessible by road. This meant staff would live on site during the fire season and report their observations via radio.

More recently, satellite imaging has begun to replace mountaintop lookouts for the purposes of wildfire monitoring. While some fire lookouts are still in active use, others have become historic structures and tourist attractions. Some have even been converted into rental cabins.

OSM currently doesn't have a documented way to tag fire lookouts. There's only a single use of building=fire_lookout and four uses of a seemingly related building=lookout_tower according to TagInfo. man_made=tower exists and can be made more specific with tower:type=observation, but this doesn't specifically indicate a fire lookout. Furthermore, not all fire lookouts are towers, though generally all are buildings as they're used to house the personnel that staff them.


According to, there were at one time over 8,000 fire lookouts in the US, and around 2500 are still standing. Lookouts have also been widely used in Canada and Australia, and I believe also in many other parts of the world where wildfires are common.

Here are some example photos of fire lookouts.


New tags

This proposal suggests using building=fire_lookout to indicate structures which were built for the purpose of wilderness fire spotting, which generally have a common set of physical features (often square, one-room structures with windows in all directions). This tagging can be used both for active fire lookouts and buildings which were originally built as lookouts but have since been converted for other uses (such as visitor centers or rental chalets).

Structures that are currently used for fire spotting can be tagged emergency=fire_lookout. This tag can be applied both to building=fire_lookout as well as to other structures such as man_made=tower (likely also tagged tower:type=observation).[1]

Usage with existing tags

Most lookouts will have an official name=*, usually derived from the peak upon which they're built or the region they look out over.

Lifecycle tags can be used to tag fire lookouts which are disused or abandoned. For example, disused=yes for an unused lookout, or abandoned:building=fire_lookout for one which has fallen into severe disrepair.

Regardless of the current state of use or repair, a lookout is usually owned and operated by a land management agency (such as the Forest Service or the National Park Service in the U.S.). When possible, note this on the object using the operator=* tag.

Some lookouts have been converted into rental cabins – in the U.S., these are usually owned and operated by the Park or Forest Service. These can be tagged building=fire_lookout but should not be tagged emergency=fire_lookout. Use tourism=chalet to indicate the present use, along with relevant operator=* information if it's known. Consider also adding electricity=* information since it will very likely be relevant to anyone staying at the lookout.

Some lookouts that are no longer in active service have been opened to the public. These can be tagged access=yes and possibly also tourism=viewpoint. Other lookouts have signs indicating that they're closed to public access and should be tagged access=no. Again, only use emergency=fire_lookout for structures that are actively used for fire spotting.

Many (but not all) fire lookout structures are also towers and can be tagged man_made=tower and tower:type=observation. Consider adding height=* if it is known. Most lookouts are building:levels=1 and it may be helpful to tag them as such.[2]

Some fire lookouts are designated historic buildings and can be tagged historic=building. Consider also adding an appropriate Wikipedia or Wikidata link, or other relevant ref (e.g. ref:nrhp=*). If possible, also tag the year that the lookout was erected with start_date=*.

Applies to

Fire lookouts should typically be mapped as closed ways, like other buildings. For especially small lookouts or lookouts where the exact bounds can't be accurately determined from imagery, a node may be used instead.

Features/Pages affected

If this proposal is accepted, the pages Tag:building=fire_lookout and Tag:emergency=fire lookout should be created (their contents can probably be adapted from the text of this proposal). These pages should be careful to describe the difference between the two taggings, as the similar names could cause confusion. A note should also be added to Tag:man_made=tower linking to these pages.


This is my first OSM proposal. Feedback is welcome. Please comment on the discussion page.


  1. For example, Mount Lofty Fire Tower (see image above) is both a man_made=tower and an emergency=fire_lookout. It's probably not a building=fire_lookout since it's very small and not intended to provide living quarters to the emergency personnel who staff it.
  2. For example, Ute Mountain Fire Tower (see image above) is probably best tagged as both a building=fire_lookout and a man_made=tower with tower:type=observation.