USA — Despite technological advances in detecting wildfires, the old-fashioned method of spotting fires with the naked eye from a lofty lookout tower is experiencing a renaissance in Southern California.
And residents of San Diego and Southwest Riverside counties soon may get a close-up view of one of the oldest local fire lookouts, as the U.S. Forest Service works to reopen a renovated tower atop Palomar Mountain that stood empty 17 years.
Brian Harris, spokesman for the Cleveland National Forest, said safety-related repairs to stairs must be completed before the service can open the lookout on 6,142-foot High Point to the public in late August.
However, the tower was pressed back into service as a fire detection instrument on June 13.
It is manned by volunteers on weekends and occasionally during the week.
“We’re going back to eyeballs,” said Brad Eells, chairman of the San Diego-Riverside Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, which spearheaded the renovation project.
“It is still the best way to see fires when they are small,” he said.
While advanced, strategically positioned cameras can spot fires, they aren’t as reliable when it comes to providing the earliest possible detection, Eells said in a telephone interview.
Someone scanning the horizon with a powerful set of binoculars can spot a wisp of smoke faster.
“We have cameras. We have satellites,” said Joe Bressi, a volunteer from San Diego, while patrolling a fire lookout on 8,828-foot Tahquitz Peak in Riverside County recently. “But there’s nothing better than spotting with your eyes, I believe. It’s old-school, but it works.”
Eells said his association, a national group founded in 1990, is restoring lookouts in a bid to preserve a rich part of California’s culture and past.
He said the organization also hopes to give Southern California firefighters an early jump on wildfires before they become wind-driven infernos such as the Poomacha, Rice and Witch fires that torched a quarter-million acres in North San Diego County in 2007.
“That’s the key,” Eells said. “The sooner you know, the sooner you can move equipment. That can be a big help in 60-mph winds.”
A giant tree house
High Point has played a fire prevention role off and on for nearly 75 years.
The original structure was built in 1935; the one still standing was erected in 1964.
But the lookout closed in 1992, the casualty of government budget cuts in a deep national recession.
It might still be in ruins had it not been for a March 2008 visit by Eells to the world-renowned Palomar Observatory nearby.
Gazing up through the forest at High Point’s impressive lookout, Eells was curious about its condition.
“And then all of the stars and planets aligned,” he said.
Eells, who lives in Menifee and works as a photography manager for a school portrait company, started making calls.
He visited the site in May 2008.
In September, he and others made a pitch to the Forest Service.
And by December, they had inked an agreement for a restoration project.
In March of this year, he and other volunteers rolled up their sleeves and set about the task of replacing windows and floors, and installing cabinets.
“The interior had been stripped,” Eells said. “Half the glass was broken out. Shutters were missing. We literally had to rebuild the inside of it.”
Volunteers also put on a fresh coat of paint.
“What you are seeing is very close to what it would have looked like when it was brand-new (in 1964), including the original color, which no other lookout around here can boast: the lovely shade of seafoam green,” Eells said. “It’s a very light green.”
Like a giant tree house, the lookout is perched on top of a metal tower that rises 67 feet above a rocky, brushy point.
Towering above a verdant and fragrant forest of pine, fir and cedar, the lookout offers visitors and volunteers a breathtaking, 360-degree panoramic view that reaches to Mount Baldy near Los Angeles, San Gorgonio Mountain northeast of Riverside and Mount Laguna in southern San Diego County.
“And on a clear day, I can see San Diego Bay,” Eells said.
When it comes to spotting potentially dangerous fires close to home, the tower affords an unobstructed view of the valley east of Temecula, the high plateau of Warner Springs and Lake Henshaw, and the hills around Ramona.
With the return of the lookout’s original Osborne fire-finder, a circular instrument that incorporates a map of the surrounding area, spotters can pinpoint the location of fires.
Camping with a million-dollar view
On a recent morning, a volunteer from Santa Fe Valley named Martin Heflin, a 60-year-old retired insurance broker with a full head of thick gray hair parted down the middle, was keeping watch on the landscape that rolled out like a lumpy brown-and-green carpet from High Point.
“I saw a movie or a television show years and years ago about a fire lookout and family that manned it, and it captivated me,” Heflin said.
Then, after the massive 2007 fires, he figured it was time to lend a hand.
“I feel that I’m making a difference, providing a service, while at the same time giving myself some relaxation and quiet time,” Heflin said. “To me, it’s deluxe camping. You’ve got everything —- plus a million-dollar view.”
Heflin said he looks forward to showing the view to visitors, once the tower is ready for them.
But, he joked, “I’m going to have to brush up on my knowledge of the native vegetation.”
While the lookout provides an unobstructed view of much of the backcountry, there is a blind spot.
Because a broad shoulder of Palomar Mountain extends well to the south, spotters can’t see what’s happening below in the canyons and communities along Highway 76.
For that reason, Eells has set his sights on one day putting back into commission the Boucher Hill lookout in Palomar Mountain State Park along the mountain’s south side.
And, he is eyeing a potential restoration of a fire lookout on 6,533-foot Hot Springs Mountain near Warner Springs, on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation.
If those two aging towers were restored, it would cover the gaps in the view afforded by High Point.
As it is, High Point is one of two active lookouts in San Diego County. The other one is the Los Pinos Fire Lookout along the U.S.-Mexico border, Eells said.
He said Riverside County has three active lookouts, including two in the alpine San Jacinto Mountains.
Eells said the third is on Red Mountain, halfway between High Point and Tahquitz Peak. Tahquitz sits above the rustic mountain town of Idyllwild.
At their peak, there were 8,250 fire lookouts nationwide, Eells said.
Now there are barely 800 in the United States, and 87 in California.
“Literally 90 percent of them have gone away.” Eells said.