USA — A square, flat concrete slab set in boulders is the trustiest place tostand atop 10,365-foot Mitchell Peak while taking in the 360-degree view of thecentral Sierra Nevada Mountains. The foothills are to the west. Kings Canyon isa green gash to the north. Jennie Lakes Wilderness is south, and the crestsalong the Great Western Divide frame the horizon to the east. The grand panoramais just reward for the stiff 3.2-mile hike.
I can guarantee you won’t be thinking about the concrete slab underfoot. Butit’s worth noticing; it’s all that’s left of a fire tower pulled down in the1970s, when airplanes and helicopters began replacing lonely fire lookouts.
Those lookout towers that remained generally fell into decline, but latelypeople have been drawn back to them for the stories they tell and the knock-outviews. Thanks to enthusiasts and the U.S. Forest Service, some towers arestaffed and renovated. Many also are open to visitors, and some can be rentedfor overnight stays.
In August, I visited a handful of them in California, including one in theSierra and one in San Bernardino National Forest, just as fire season was aboutto begin.
Generally, lookout towers don’t have electricity, phone service or drinkablewater; they’re usually at the end of precarious dirt roads suitable only forbackpackers, four-legged animals and high-clearance vehicles.
Overnighters must bring their own cookstoves and figure out what to do ifthey must answer nature’s call in the middle of the night, when they will bemany steps above the Earthbound outhouse.
But you should see sunrise from a fire tower. You simply can’t roll over andgo back to sleep when it starts outlining the eastern horizon.
Once there were 8,000 lookout towers in the United States, on the front lineof the forest fire battle that started about the time President TheodoreRoosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905.
Lookout tower construction became a priority in 1910, one of the worstforest-fire years on record: 5 million acres went up in smoke and 78firefighters were killed.
Initially, fire towers were little more than wind-swept platforms in bigtrees where watchers looked for little fires before they could burn out ofcontrol.
Around 1914, towers in which fire watchers could live were built. They hadstaircases and cozy cabs, 14 feet square, surrounded by catwalks.
About 2,000 fire towers remain, but only 800 are staffed and active,according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association, of Vienna, Va. The associationhas chapters in 25 states made up of preservationists, hikers, environmentalistsand nostalgic locals who think vintage fire towers are worth saving.
Kathy Ball is part of that effort. Five mornings a week from June to August,she wakes up in the tower at Buck Rock, perched on an 8,500-foot granite cone inSequoia National Forest, about 250 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Ball spearheaded the drive to restore and reactivate Buck Rock in 1999,followed by Park Ridge and Delilah towers, also in the area. Now she’s anemployee with Sequoia National Forest, living and working at Buck Rock on thewestern flank of the Sierra Nevada.
It’s her home, complete with a phone, electric stove, space heater, lamp,coffee maker, sink, radio, single bed, solar-heated shower, hummingbird feederand Tibetan prayer flag, as well as an Osborne Fire Finder, an instrument usedto pinpoint suspicious smoke plumes in the forest.
Ball’s nest above the treetops has sterling views of the foothills and peaksalong the Great Western Divide, which is only slightly lower than 14,495-footMount Whitney, king of the Sierra Nevada, about 35 miles southeast. When it’sclear, Ball says, you can see 40 miles in all directions.
She begins and ends her days scanning for smoke from the catwalk, a task sherepeats every 15 minutes, though after 14 seasons as a lookout, Ball can detecttrouble spots out of the corner of her eye. She makes weather observations usedto establish the daily fire danger level, writes in the log and scans 14channels on the shortwave radio, relaying messages among lookouts, dispatchersand firefighters.
It’s rarely dull at Buck Rock, especially when Ball spots a suspicious plumeof smoke, which she pinpoints on the Osborne Fire Finder and monitors. Whenshe’s sure the smoke is a fire, she relays the information to her dispatcher andprovides detailed directions about how to reach it on the ground. She hasin-depth knowledge about the lay of the land and has called in many firstreports of fires, the primary job of a lookout.
In the last few decades, fire has come to be seen as a natural and sometimesbeneficial force in the wilderness, cleaning out undergrowth that could fuel adisastrous blaze. Spotting fires at an early stage remains crucial, soauthorities can decide whether to fight them or let them burn.
That’s what lookouts do best, and they do it more economically than aircraft.Ball says it costs about $15,000 a season to staff Buck Rock; helicoptersurveillance costs about $1,000 an hour.
Budget cuts have made it hard for government wilderness administrators torestore and re-staff lookout towers. Last year, about 40 of them were razedacross the country, said Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire LookoutAssociation. But their value as tourist attractions is being recognized, and thedrive to save the structures for new uses — as rentals, for instance — isgaining momentum.
Until recently, Morton Peak in San Bernardino National Forest was one ofseveral hundred towers available for overnight stays. It was built in the 1960s,overlooking the town of Redlands. With holes in the cab floor and a corrodedcatwalk, the lookout was slated for demolition until volunteers restored it in2001.
I booked two nights at the lookout right before a small brush fire started byillegal shooters burned the skirt of Morton Peak. The structure wasn’t damaged,but the two-mile dirt road leading up to it was imperiled. It’s unclear when itwill reopen.
At the Mill Creek Ranger Station on California 38, a Smokey Bear sign saidfire danger was high. Inside, a ranger told me the peak fire season runs frommid-September to mid-October, when the Santa Ana winds breathe fresh oxygen intothe forest tinderbox.
The Fire Lookout Hosts program has about 350 volunteers who staff sevenactive towers in the San Bernardino National Forest during the day.
I quickly learned to carry as little as possible up to the Morton Peak cab. Ikept my ice chest in the trunk of the car and cooked on a propane stove by thepicnic table. When night fell, I climbed up to bed in the tower, where I read byflashlight and looked at the star chart in the sky, trying to ignore my bladder.It wasn’t just the risky climb down the tower in the dark that kept me fromvisiting the outhouse. It was the poster in front of the toilet reminding peopleto watch for rattlesnakes.
I felt isolated and exposed at first, and a little frightened, though fire,lightning and other dangers are basically the same as those faced by campers.Once I got used to living between Earth and sky, with no distractions, I foundit deeply restorative.
The fire lookout association keeps a list of towers available to overnightguests. Calpine, a lookout I visited in the million-acre Tahoe National Forest,near Sierraville, is on the list. It was restored in 2004 by volunteers and theForest Service. Tahoe National Forest has eight lookouts, four of which,including Calpine, are historic landmarks.
“We were faced with having a building eligible for the National Registerof Historic Places that we did not have the money to maintain, and we hadongoing vandalism,” said Michael J. Baldrica, archeologist for TahoeNational Forest. “Renting has solved both problems. We are using the rentmoney to restore the lookouts as we go.”