85-year-old still spotting fires after decades

Posted at 5:47 PM, Jul 06, 2017

When it comes to spotting wildfires one man is keeping a watchful eye. But that's only a small part of his unique story.

With a once-over from his wife, Billy Ellis is ready for his morning commute. And no, he's not heading for the car. He's heading to a staircase and walking up all 143 steps as he's done every summer for the last 33 years.

At 85 years old, things are a little different than when he first started.

"I used to climb the whole thing at one time," Ellis says. "But now I go about 25 steps and I stop."

But it's what he does once he gets to work that makes every step worthwhile.

Ellis is a watchman at Devil's Head Tower in Colorado, which means he spends his days looking for fires in the forest below.

"We're looking for a column of smoke," Ellis says. "We look about every 15 minutes, take a look around and see if we can see one. Sometimes you'll go for days and never see one and all of a sudden there it is."

He's seen his share in his three plus decades in the tower. But on most days he sees more new friends than fires. Just last year roughly 27,000 people visited the tower.

The Osborn's made the trip from Washington, impressed as much by Ellis as the nature around him.

"You can really see that he cares about what he does and that he loves it," Osborn says. "I mean I got winded climbing up these stairs and yet he does it every day so I think it's amazing."

Ellis says he has always loved nature, but says there's something special about being the watchman in this tower that keeps him working when many his age are not.

"Well I retired and had a heart attack had cancer but everything turned out alright so I'm back again," Ellis says.

And while his view may be unclear on this particular day, one thing isn't. Ellis has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"Soon as you retire you die," Ellis says. "You gotta keep going."

When Ellis does retire he may be one of the last watchmen. That's because technology like helicopters and cell phones are now being used to alert when there's a fire emergency.