Wildfire lookout tower is making its way back

Wildfire lookout tower is making its way back

2 December 2008

published by www.signonsandiego.com

USA — Decades ago throughout the forests of the United States, vigilant people, often alone atop tall towers on isolated mountain peaks, would scour the horizon, looking for smoke.

Blame it on smog, technology or budget cuts. By the 1980s, tower after tower had been abandoned.

But the towers are making a comeback in Southern California and throughout the country. Soon, an old tower on the highest point of Palomar Mountain will be refurbished and staffed by volunteers.

“The idea with humans is they can see small fires when they first begin,” said Brad Eells of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a national group established in 1990 that’s devoted to refurbishing and maintaining the old lookouts. “There’s a lot of value in having people up here doing this work.”

On Friday, officials with the Cleveland National Forest will sign an agreement with the association allowing its volunteers to reopen the High Point Fire Lookout Station about 2 miles northeast of Palomar’s famous Hale Telescope at an elevation of 6,142 feet.

It is a massive 67-foot-tall steel tower topped by a 14-foot by 14-foot cab, where by next year someone will be living 24 hours a day during fire season.

Originally built in 1934, the tower was replaced in 1964 with the existing 28,000-pound structure. It was regularly staffed into the 1990s but has been sitting unused for at least a dozen years, Eells said.

From 1934 until at least 1958, it was staffed – “hosted” in U.S. Forest Service parlance – by a husband and wife team. Records show that Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Moore lived at the tower every day during fire season.

Back then, Eells said, the forest was pretty much unpopulated, and lookouts almost always reported fires first.

“There was an interlocking set of lookouts all over the forest,” Eells said. “Between (Palomar Mountain) and the border, there were at least five.”

Using a device called an Osborne Fire Finder, lookouts determined the approximate location of a fire by sighting on the smoke. Often, the smoke could be seen by more than one lookout, which provided a more precise location.

The method is still in use today, and fire watchers in the San Bernardino National Forest should be able to help locate fires in San Diego County.

The Palomar Observatory is just west of High Point tower. Eells said he will be one of the first hosts when the lookout is functioning again.

“Part of the charm is to be up here with the observatory. I can’t wait to be up here at night and see (the dome) open.”

Vandals have ravaged the tower during the past decade. To make it less appealing to thieves, the cab was gutted by forest employees several years ago.

The goal is to start refurbishing it immediately, Eells said.

The original Osborne device, now in storage, will be installed in the center of the cab. Windows need replacing, and the floor needs work as does the wall paneling. All the cabinets were removed because of vandalism.

“We’re going to reconstruct all those things to the 1964 standard that it was built to,” Eells said. “We have the original plans, and we’re gathering the volunteer work force and materials to do that.”

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer lookout host will be trained by the association, Eells said. Southern California currently has more than 300 trained hosts working in nine renovated lookouts in the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests. Training requires 16 hours in the classroom and eight hours in a tower.

The Forest Service is eager to reopen lookout towers.

“They’ve done an outstanding job in the past and recently contacted us and asked us if we would like to participate,” said Brian Harris, a Cleveland spokesman.

“In this day and age with the Forest Service cutting budgets, and our work force is smaller than ever, to have a volunteer organization come out and want to do some great things on the forest, we can’t ask for more.”

There is hope, Harris said, that a lookout on Lyons Peak in the south central part of the county near Jamul and Lyons Valley will be the next to be refurbished. That may be difficult, Harris said, because the road to the lookout tower crosses onto private land, and the owner is resistant to it being used.

There is one functioning lookout in the Cleveland National Forest, the Los Pinos Fire Lookout Station near Lake Morena. Built in 1925, it is staffed year round by fire service employees. It is the only remaining fire lookout in Southern California with a professional staff.

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