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As more forests burn, some want to resurrect mountain fire towers

You might thank Pam Morey for the fact that people in tower lookouts were the first to spot 20 or so wildfires in the San Bernardino National Forest last year — fires you never heard about because they were extinguished before significant damage could occur.

Then you can add in the blazes identified by fellow volunteer lookouts in the Cleveland and Angeles national forests.



Morey has been the volunteer coordinator for the lookout towers in the San Bernardino National Forest since 1993. A year earlier, she and her husband, George, joined a nascent operation to help the U.S. Forest Service with a plan to renovate three abandoned towers and turn them into visitor centers staffed with volunteers.

But those volunteers had radios and binoculars, and started calling in fires. Soon, the lookout role was formalized. Four more towers were repaired and staffed. More volunteers were recruited. Morey and husband then went to the Cleveland and Angeles forests to help with tower renovations and volunteer organizing there, before resuming their focus on the their homeground, in the San Bernardino Mountains.

“I don’t know why someone gets so attached to a 14′ by 14′ building,” Morey said from the deck of the Keller Peak Lookout near Running Springs. “But I’m preserving history for future generations. I’m preserving not only the lookout, but the forest and the animals.”

At their peak, 625 fire lookout towers stood watch in California. Today, just 98 remain and only 50 of those are staffed — largely by volunteers — according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association.

While most forest fires are called in by residents who spot smoke from their cars or homes, the throwback technology of lookouts can identify fires deeper in the forest, before they’re visible from roads or homes.

With climate change driving longer and more intense fire seasons, lookout veterans are among those calling for more staffed towers.

“They need to put them back where they were — that would help a lot,” said Morey, sporting fire tower earrings and a U.S. Forest Service Lookout polo shirt.

“It’s worth the investment.”

Last year saw five of the state’s six biggest wildfires in history burn a record 4.4 million acres. This year has gotten off to an even faster start, and the still-blazing Dixie Fire is the state’s second biggest ever. As of Aug. 23, 1.6 million acres had burned, mostly in northern California, compared with 1.5 million acres at the same point of last year’s record-breaking wildfire season, according to CalFire.

Rise and fall

The history of lookouts in the U.S. starts with the Great Fire of 1910 — aka The Big Blowup — which burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington. In response to the need to better prepare for wildfires, a large-scale effort to construct towers was launched.

The lookouts peaked at more than 5,000 in the late 1930s, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Just 400 to 600 remain, many unused and in disrepair.

Along the way, writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey were among those drawn to vast, gorgeous settings and stark solitude of the towers. They memorialized those tours of duty.

“It was all mine, not another human pair of eyes in the world were looking at this immense cycloramic universe of matter,” Kerouac wrote in “Dharma Bums.” “I had a tremendous sensation of its dreamlikeness which never left me all that summer and in fact grew and grew.”

The four-county region of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino once had at least 57 towers, according to fire lookout Mike Guerin. Twelve of those remain: eight are currently staffed, seven by volunteers and one by the U.S. Forest Service.

“Growth and urbanization introduced aircraft and technology that made (lookout towers) nearly obsolete,” according to the Southern California Mountains Foundation, which coordinates the lookout volunteer program for the seven towers in the San Bernardino National Forest, six of which are currently staffed. “Most have been lost to fire, vandalism, and removal.”

Guerin and Morey say the extreme smog in the greater Los Angeles area in the 1970s greatly reduced the effectiveness of the lookouts and subsequent budget cuts made towers easy targets for abandonment.

“These days, the majority of first reports on fires come from people who live in wildland areas, or people with cell phones who are driving through or recreatingin wildland areas,” according to the CAL FIRE website. “Because of this proven trend, and due to hampered visibility from air pollution, CAL FIRE no longer uses lookouts in Southern California.”

CAL FIRE, however, continues to maintain towers in northern California, where forest expanses are often greater than those in Southern California.

A future for lookouts?

Advocates for more lookouts point out that Southern California air quality has improved dramatically since the 1970s and note the shortcomings of relying so heavily on cell phone reports, even in the relatively urbanized southern part of the state.

“There is a lot of backcountry that cannot be seen from well-traveled roads, and there is a lot of backcountry that does not have cell coverage,” said Scott McClintock, the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s director for California’s south region.

“A volunteer in a tower will see a smoke when it is still young, and give firefighters a fighting chance of knocking it down before it gets destructive. That same fire might have to grow to a half or a full acre in size before a passerby on a road eight miles away sees it and reports it.  Depending on wind conditions, that could be too late.”

An emerging technology is mountaintop wildlife cameras. More than 800 of the devices now operate throughout the state thanks to the ALERTWildfire project. Anybody can monitor the cameras in real time at the ALERTWildfire website.

But they can’t yet do the job that staffed lookouts can. Because of the proliferation of false alarms that can be triggered by anything from unusual clouds to tractor dust, CAL FIRE doesn’t use the cameras for fire detection — just for verifying reported fires, nailing down locations and monitoring ongoing blazes.

Neal Driscoll, co-director of ALERTWildfire for California, acknowledges the cameras aren’t ready to do the job that lookouts can. Artificial intelligence that could accurately prompt alarm notifications from cameras, satellites or aircraft is not yet up to the task, he said.

“Your eye is better than AI,” he quipped. “This is a blend of technologies and all have their place. We need all the tools in the toolbox.”

But while the state approved $458 million this year in new spending on fire prevention, including thinning forests and prescribed burns, there is no push to significantly increase the number of lookout towers. Instead, there’s been spot replacement of a tower here and there.

The rebuilt Vetter Mountain tower in the Angeles National Forest, for instance, cost $1.2 million and was paid for by Southern California Edison as mitigation. Paid staffing can run $100,000 for eight months, according to Don Piller, a member of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and a Palomar Mountain lookout volunteer.

“While manned lookouts will be, at least for a long time yet, better and a lot more flexible than a camera, they are also way more expensive,” Piller said.

But Morey, the volunteer lookout coordinator, said lookouts spotting a fire in its early stages can offer a huge return on investment.

“It can be the difference between a $1,000 fire and one that costs millions of dollars,” she said.

And those millions can quickly turn into billions. Property losses from California wildfires exceeded $10 billion three of the last four years, according to the California Council on Science and Technology. That’s in addition to more than $3 billion spent annually by the state and federal governments on firefighting and $5 billion more spent on prevention and mitigation, according to the council.

Morey suggested that if the towers were built, costs could be minimized by staffing them with volunteers. And Guerin points out the push for more towers found success In Pennsylvania, where 16 new lookouts were erected in 2018.

Alone on top

Morey, 65, is stepping down from her volunteer post at the end of the year and, when the subject comes up, she quickly grows emotional. She recalls how the work took over the lives of her and her husband, how they spent their weekends and pre-retirement vacations working on the lookouts. Over time, their attachment to the towers only grew.

“It’s a tough decision because I really love the lookouts,” she said of her retirement.

That sentiment runs deep among her 200 volunteers as well. Most are retirees who share an affection for the outdoors and a commitment to public service.

“People feel very passionate about it and take ownership,” she said. “I’m leaving this in good hands.”

One set of those hands belong to Guerin, 68, who started volunteering shortly after his wife, Sheri, died in 2017.

“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors,” he said. “This gets me out of the house and out of myself. And I have that feeling of service.”

When he was told the remote Red Mountain Lookout was most in need of volunteers because it was difficult to get to, he didn’t hesitate. He’s spent a weekend there every month during fire season since.

Guerin’s trek begins with a two-hour drive from his Upland home to the town of Aguanga, 20 miles east of Temecula, where he visits a 98-year-old former lookout. Then it’s a 10-minute drive east to the Cahuilla Casino Hotel, where he spends the night.

He’s back on the road by 7 a.m., steering his 2018 Jeep Wrangler for 9-mile over rocky, dusty terrain that’s so rough it takes 45 minutes to reach the tower.

“(In places), the scrub oak and brush scrape the side of the Jeep it is so narrow,” Guerin said. “Large, reddish boulders the size of a pickup truck hang overhead.”

There’s a spot overlooking Reed Valley, then a historic meadow and then a zigzag path up to the tower.

Once there, the spotter’s routine begins. He collects temperature, wind and humidity readings, and radios the data to the Forest Service. Then he hoists the U.S. flag, checks the journal entry from the last spotter, and begins 15-minute intervals of scanning the expanse with binoculars.

“I’m looking particularly where hikers and offroad vehicles go,” he said. “Absent lightning, it’s rare for a fire to start without any people around.”

There’s also tower maintenance. So far this season, Guerin has purchased and replaced six floorboards. The structure, first built in 1936, has burned down twice. On occasion, lookouts need to be helicoptered to safety, though that’s yet to happen in Guerin’s four years there.

After the sun goes down, he reads and listens to classical music, turning in around 9 p.m.

About 20 miles to the south, at the Boucher Hill Lookout on Palomar Mountain, Piller usually brings his buddy Bob Warrick and often they stay just for the day.

“Although we sometimes do an overnight, which allows us to have a couple of beers, a good steak, an excellent evening and then do the next day,” he said.

Elsewhere, some volunteers make it an outing with their spouses. But Guerin enjoys the solitude.

“I grew up an only child and I don’t mind being alone,” he said.

“This environment makes you realize how small we are. I see the Milky Way right above my head and mountains that have been here for eons. It helps me understand my place in the universe — that I’m not the center of the universe, but that I can contribute to its well-being.”

Source: Orange County Register

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