Bolero Lookout Towers No More

Times Staff Writer

For nearly half a century, the Bolero Lookout withstood the elements atop a lonely peak in Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains.

But it took a bulldozer only 20 minutes to bring the two-story wooden structure crashing to earth Wednesday as the Orange County Fire Department demolished the county’s last remaining fire lookout--and along with it, yet another remnant of the county’s rustic past.

“God, they’re finally gonna do her in; the last of our landmarks,” Capt. John Sleppy a 27-year veteran of the Fire Department, murmured sadly to himself as he surveyed the scene.

The lookout, visible until Wednesday from nearby Santiago Canyon Road, had been one of three that local fire officials built in the mountains immediately after World War II, when Orange County consisted primarily of farms and ranches.


The other two were atop mile-high Santiago Peak--Orange County’s highest point--and Gilman Peak, near Carbon Canyon in the northern part of the mountain range.

From these towering vantage points, designated spotters would scan the horizon for any sign of smoke or fire, alerting fire crews by radio or telephone when necessary.

When they weren’t spotting fires, the lookouts would endure such rigors as ejecting rattlesnakes from outhouses and fighting off swarms of bees. They also waited fearfully as howling windstorms and driving rain threatened to topple the rickety structures, which were built by state prison work crews.

By the 1960s, however, Fire Department Capt. Bill Glover said, smog had reduced visibility to the point that lookouts were rendered virtually useless. The Fire Department, at the same time, built so many new fire stations around the county that lookout towers were no longer considered crucial, Glover added.


So, one by one, the county tore them down.

Bolero Lookout--the lone holdout for the past decade--finally was put to the bulldozer’s blade after recent Santa Ana winds left the rickety structure tilted to one side, ready to collapse on anyone who might try to climb it. Fire officials then decided that the lookout was too much of a safety hazard to leave intact.

As fire officials organized the demolition--shuttling two vanloads of invited media representatives to the top of 1,600-foot Bolero Peak--Sleppy and other veteran firefighters reminisced about the old lookout and some of the colorful people who used to man it.

Foremost among the latter group is a woman, now dead, named Lois Smith. A full-time paid lookout for the county for several years during the 1960s, Smith and the other lookouts tended the towers during fire season, which runs from June through October. They would work 10 days on, 5 days off.

Sleppy watched glumly as the old landmark came down.

“It makes me sad,” Sleppy said, “because I am one of the old-timers in the county. I remember when there were no houses. . . . But the old has to make way for the new. That’s just a fact of life.”