A square, flat concrete slab set in a pile of boulders is the trustiest place to stand atop 10,365-foot Mitchell Peak while taking in the 360-degree view of the central Sierra Nevada. The foothills are to the west. Kings Canyon is a green gash to the north. Jennie Lakes Wilderness is south, and the crests along the Great Western Divide frame the horizon to the east. The grand panorama is just reward for the stiff 3.2-mile hike. Once you get to the top, I can guarantee you won’t be thinking about the concrete slab underfoot.
But it’s worth noticing; it’s all that’s left of a tower pulled down in the 1970s, when airplanes and helicopters began replacing lonely fire lookouts. Those that remained generally fell into decline, but lately people have been drawn back to them for the stories they tell and the knock-out views. Thanks to enthusiasts and the U.S. Forest Service, such aeries are being staffed and renovated. Most also are open to visitors, and some can be rented for overnight stays. So last month I visited a handful of them in California, including one in the Sierra and one in San Bernardino National Forest, just as the fire season was about to begin.
Generally, the lookouts don’t have electricity, phone service or drinkable water; they’re at the end of precarious dirt roads suitable only for backpackers, four-legged animals and high-clearance vehicles.
Overnighters must bring their own cook stoves and figure out what to do if they must answer nature’s call in the middle of the night, when they will be many steps above the earthbound outhouse.
But you should see sun-up from a fire tower. You simply can’t roll over and go back to sleep when it starts outlining the eastern horizon.
The early years
ONCE there were 8,000 noble, low-tech but effective lookout towers in the U.S., on the front line of the all-out battle against fire that started about the time President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Lookout construction became a priority in 1910, one of the worst forest-fire years on record. Five million acres went up in smoke, and 78 firefighters were killed.
Initially, fire towers were little more than windy platforms atop big trees where watchers looked for little fires before they burned out of control. Around 1914, structures in which fire watchers could live were introduced. They had staircases and cozy cabs, generally 14 feet square, surrounded by catwalks.
Hikers sometimes come across such lookouts in remote places. About 2,000 fire towers have persevered, but only about 800 are staffed and active, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Assn., which has its headquarters in Vienna, Va. The association has chapters in 25 states made up of architectural preservationists, hikers, environmentalists and nostalgic locals who think vintage fire towers are worth saving.
Kathy Ball is part of the effort. Five mornings a week from June to August, she wakes up in the cab at Buck Rock, perched on an 8,500-foot granite cone in Sequoia 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 a full-time seasonal employee with the Sequoia National Forest, living and working at Buck Rock on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada.
It’s her home, complete with a phone, electric stove, space heater, lamp, coffee maker, sink, radio, comfy single bed, solar-heated shower, hummingbird feeder and Tibetan prayer flag, as well as an Osborne Fire Finder, an instrument used to pinpoint suspicious smoke plumes.
She occasionally gives up the cozy cab to volunteers who relieve her, and visitors who find their way to Buck Rock from the campground off Big Meadows Roadare welcome between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Buck Rock shares its pinnacle with hawks and hoodoos. The Stars and Stripes makes a stirring sight flapping in the wind atop the tower’s fir plank cab, built in 1923.
During World War II, Buck Rock got 172 steps to replace its former, death-defying ladders. It also served as an enemy-aircraft observation post and became home to some of the first women who joined the U.S. Forest Service while the men were away at war.
Ball carries on that fine tradition in the nest above the treetops. It has sterling views of the foothills and peaks along the Great Western Divide, which is only slightly lower than 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney, king of the Sierra Nevada about 35 miles southeast. When it’s clear, Ball says, you can see 40 miles in all directions.
She begins and ends her days scanning for smoke from the catwalk, a task she repeats every 15 minutes, though in her 14 seasons as a lookout, Ball has developed an ability to detect trouble spots out of the corner of her eye. She takes weather observations used to establish the daily fire danger level, writes in the log and constantly scans 14 channels on the shortwave radio, relaying messages among other lookouts, dispatchers and firefighters.
Buck Rock is a popular tourist destination, so Ball keeps the cab shipshape for the 5,000 visitors she receives a season. Occasionally she goes out of service to descend the tower and visit the facilities or to walk her dog, Annabelle, who otherwise sleeps in the cab at Ball’s feet.
It’s rarely dull at Buck Rock, especially when Ball spots a suspicious plume of smoke, which she pinpoints on the Osborne and monitors. When she’s sure the smoke is a fire, she relays the information to her dispatcher and provides detailed directions about how to reach it on the ground. She has compendious knowledge about the lay of the land and has called in many first reports of fires, the primary job of a lookout.
In the last few decades, fire has come to be seen as a natural and sometimes beneficial force in the wilderness, cleaning out dense undergrowth that could fuel a disastrous blaze. But spotting fires at an early stage so authorities can decide whether to fight them or let them burn, carefully monitored, remains crucial.
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; helicopter surveillance costs about $1,000 an hour.
Budget cuts have made it hard for government wilderness administrators to restore and re-staff lookout towers. Last year about 40 of them were razed across the country, said Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Assn. But their ancillary value as tourist attractions that teach people about the wilderness is being recognized, and the drive to save the structures for a variety of new uses -- as rentals, for instance -- is gaining momentum.
UNTIL recently, Morton Peak in the San Bernardino National Forest was one of several hundred towers available for overnight stays. It was built in the ‘60s, overlooking the town of Redlands from a 4,624-foot mountain near the mouth of Mill Creek Canyon. With holes in the cab floor and a corroded catwalk, the lookout was slated for demolition until volunteers restored it in 2001.
I booked two nights at the lookout right before a small brush fire started by illegal shooting 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 it will reopen.
When I drove the road in mid-August, it looked to me as if there wasn’t much to burn. But chaparral has fueled some of the worst blazes in history, including the Old and Grand Prix fires of 2003, which joined together near the city of San Bernardino and scorched 150,000 acres of the national forest.
I stopped to get the key at the Mill Creek Ranger Station on California 38, where a Smokey the Bear sign said fire danger was high. Inside, a ranger told me about the Heart-Millard Fire in the San Gorgonio Wilderness to the east, spotted in late July but still smoldering. He said that peak fire season runs from mid-September to mid-October, when the Santa Ana winds breathe fresh oxygen into the forest tinderbox.
Halfway up the mountain, I had to get out of my vehicle to unlock a big, swinging gate, kept closed at night and whenever a volunteer is not on duty. Finally the tower came into view, alone and exposed on the summit, except for a picnic table, outhouse and two pine trees from which some thoughtful soul had hung a yellowjacket trap. A tank at the base of the tower provided non-potable water.
Two flights of steep metal stairs bisected by another locked gate led to the tidy, window-lined cab. There I found a cushy trundle bed where I unrolled my sleeping bag, two captain’s chairs, charts, books, water jugs, a broom and rolled-up Smokey the Bear posters that volunteers give to visitors.
The Fire Lookout Hosts program has about 350 volunteers who staff seven active towers in the San Bernardino National Forest during the day, whenever possible, though no lookout was working when I stayed at Morton Peak. Besides watching for smoke, their job is to explain the uses of the fire lookouts to people who hike, bike or drive up the mountain to take in the view.
Runneled peaks surround the cab at Morton Peak to the west, north and east. To the south, the wallpaper is the pass between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, with Redlands sometimes under a pink blanket of smog. I quickly learned to carry as little as possible up to the cab. I kept my ice chest in the trunk of the car and cooked on a propane stove by the picnic table. When night fell, I climbed up to bed in the tower, where I read by flashlight 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 from visiting the outhouse. It was the poster in front of the toilet reminding people to watch for rattlesnakes.
During the day, I walked back and forth across Morton Peak. Because I wasn’t watching for fires, there was nothing much to do.
So I went sightseeing on California 38, which follows a fault line and Mill Creek into the mountains along a route blazed by Mormon loggers. I stopped for a burrito at El Mexicano, a restaurant in the hamlet of Forest Falls, then hiked into the San Gorgonio Wilderness from the Vivian Creek trail head and cooled my feet at Big Falls.
STAYING in a fire tower is a unique experience. I felt isolated and exposed at first, and a little frightened, though fire, lightning and other dangers are basically the same as those campers contend with. Once I got used to living between the Earth and sky, with no distractions, I found it deeply restorative.
The fire lookout association keeps a list of towers available to overnight guests. Calpine, another lookout I visited in the million-acre Tahoe National Forest, near the hamlet of Sierraville, is on the rental list, though it remains un-staffed, except in emergencies. It was restored in 2004 by local volunteers and the Forest 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 Register of Historic Places that we did not have the money to maintain, and we had ongoing vandalism,” said Michael J. Baldrica, archeologist for Tahoe National Forest. “Renting has solved both problems. We are using the rent money to restore the lookouts as we go.”
Since Calpine became available to rent, it has become popular, especially among skiers and snowmobilers.
I saw a big-racked buck on the 1 1/2 -mile drive from California 89 to the 5,936-foot tower, built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Calpine has a three-story, white, windmill-style cab reached in an easy 29 steps, a ground-level picnic table and outhouse, and a catwalk providing stunning views of the mountains and the wide Sierra Valley to the east.
The cab is like a state park cabin, not as homey as the one at Morton Peak but perfectly comfortable. It has two bunk beds, a table and chairs, sink and a propane heater, stove and lantern.
Pressed for time, I didn’t spend the night at Calpine. But I sat in the cab listening to the wind in the trees, which, as the Joyce Kilmer poem says, only God can make.
It seemed to me no small thing that manmade fire towers are there to protect the forests and that, little by little, towers are coming back to beckon and enchant strong-legged, far-sighted people.
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On the lookout for hot sights
WHERE TO STAY:
The Forest Fire Lookout Assn., www.firelookout.org, maintains a list of fire towers that can be rented, including Calpine Lookout in the Tahoe National Forest. The association also keeps a list of towers available to overnight guests and has chapters in 25 states made up of architectural preservationists, hikers, environmentalists, nostalgic locals and, in some cases, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public land. Facilities vary, and some towers can be reached only by foot or rough, dirt roads.
The National Recreation Reservation System, (877) 444-6777, www.reserveusa.com, handles reservations.
People interested in visiting landmark towers should consult the National Historic Lookout Register at www.lookouts.us.
Morton Peak Lookout is in the San Bernardino National Forest north of Redlands. The road to it was recently damaged by fire, so reservations are not being accepted at this time, and it’s unclear whether it will reopen this year. It has a twin trundle bed but no cooking facilities, drinkable water or electricity; $75 weeknights, $85 weekends and holidays. To reserve, contact Big Bear Lake Assn., (800) 424-4232, dev.bigbearinfo.com/getaway/lodging/mortonpeakfirelookout.
Buck Rock Lookout is a permanently staffed tower in the Sequoia National Forest, off Big Meadows Road. It can be visited daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information on volunteering at Buck Rock or its sister towers, Park Ridge and Delilah, contact the Buck Rock Foundation, (559) 336-9319, www.buckrock.org.
-- Susan Spano