A Day in the Life of a TikTok-Famous Fire Lookout

"I have always been most comfortable being alone and in nature."

Photo by Brig Malessa
Photo by Brig Malessa
Photo by Brig Malessa

For some, hiding out in a secluded cabin up in the mountains, on the lookout for signs of impending wildfire, is unsettling. For others, it’s idyllic. There’s a rugged romance attached to the lifestyle, no doubt rooted in our obsession with national parks and desire to travel to out-of-reach destinations. The pull is so strong that travelers have even begun booking stays at repurposed fire lookout towers, scoring the ultimate, no-civilization-in-sight stargazing experiences.

Brig Malessa, otherwise known as @briggygee on TikTok, shares what it’s like to be a fire lookout to a community of 166.7k followers. She’ll unintentionally make you reconsider your own (safe) life choices as she points her camera at 360-degree sunset views and morning coffee sessions with Buddy the mountain goat. But the TikToker also showcases the less glamorous side of things, whether that means hand washing laundry with snowmelt, going to the bathroom in an outhouse, or receiving monthly groceries from pack mules (depending on who you ask, it’s still kind of glam).”I have always been most comfortable being alone and in nature,” says Malessa, who works for the US Forest Service and is currently on watch at a tower in Oregon. Prior to her current gig, Malessa was stationed in Idaho-“The storms and clouds were spectacular, beyond description,” she says-and Montana, which became her personal favorite for the remoteness alone. It may have taken 27 miles on horseback to get there, but it earned her a summer of peace and quiet on a mountaintop.

The fire lookout begins her 12-hour work day with a radio into dispatch. She then spends the majority of her time monitoring the weather and her view shed for any signs of fire, especially when it comes to lightning. “When you spot a smoke, you use maps and communicate with other lookouts to determine an accurate location,” she explains. “When a fire is present, you may communicate with aircraft working the fire as well as fire crews on the ground.” On good weather days, Malessa carries out basic maintenance in the lookout, in some cases helping relay radio traffic for fire or trail crews. “There’s also lots of time for hobbies,” she says. “Mine are art, reading, photography, and generally piddling around and enjoying the solitude.”

Malessa joins a legacy of honorable forest rangers who have been protecting our trees since the early twentieth century. It was the Great Fire of 1910, which burned through 3,000,000 acres of land across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, that really spurred the Forest Service to draft the comprehensive set of fire detection parameters still in effect today. And, perhaps because seclusion in the great outdoors often sparks creativity, famous writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean have been drawn to the job.At Malessa’s current setup, there’s no running water or electricity aside from a solar panel and a small inverter that’s capable of charging small items. And because she resides in a non-motorized, designated wilderness area, it’s only accessible by foot or hoof. In the case of an emergency, the Forest Service would authorize a helicopter to pick Brig up-however, the conditions would have to be just right, i.e. daylight hours and adequate visibility. Chainsaws aren’t even allowed in the area, so firewood must be cut with saws.

Malessa’s TikToks are filled with nuggets of fascinating information that might come in handy, should you choose to dwell in the wilderness-or not. You’d never know that lightning stools, for example, are traditional features at fire lookouts. Wood and glass are poor conductors of electricity, so these wooden chairs contain glass insulators on their legs to protect you when your tower inevitably takes a direct hit during an electrical storm.

Though the days are filled with tangible challenges, Malessa has found that loneliness isn’t one of them. “I have lived and recreated in a very solitary fashion for a very long time and am far more comfortable alone-this may in part be in relation to a late diagnosis of autism-so the only times I feel uncomfortable here is when there are visitors,” Malessa says. While some fire lookouts can welcome hundreds of visitors a day, Malessa luckily received only about a dozen last summer.

But it turns out her TikTok community has provided a different kind of support. “Social interaction has been a lifelong struggle for me,” Malessa says. “It turns out that online friendships are much easier and more enjoyable to me than face to face friendships.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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