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A Lookout Looks Back on Memories of Summers on Top of the World

October 24, 1985|MARY BARBER

For more than 20 summers Ramona Merwin and Vetter Mountain Lookout were ideally paired and positioned to save Angeles National Forest from ravaging fires.

Looking down on a wilderness from a height of nearly 6,000 feet, they were the eyes and ears of the U.S. Forest Service every summer until both reached retirement age.

She was the first to go. Merwin moved off her summer perch in 1980, and Vetter Lookout was closed soon thereafter.

Vetter was the last of the 30 mountain lookouts that once dotted the forest and Merwin the last of the many foresters who stood vigil every summer. Environmental changes and new technologies have ended the 50-year era of surveillance from isolated mountaintops.

Forest rangers, mountaineers and other outdoor people are planning to dismantle Vetter Lookout and reconstruct it at the Forest Service's Chilao Visitors Center on Angeles Crest Highway about 30 miles north of La Canada Flintridge. There it will stand beside California's first ranger station, a small cabin built in 1900 that the same volunteers moved log by log to Chilao and dedicated in a ceremony in August.

The lookout, called a tower but really a house on stilts, was built in the 1930s. It has a single 14-foot-square room with windows on all sides and, in the center, a surveying instrument called an Osborne Fire Finder. The house is surrounded by a veranda and has a small electrical kitchen unit that was installed about 1960. Vetter Mountain is 2 1/2 miles from Angeles Crest Highway, about five miles south of Chilao.

"It was home. It never got crowded, we never got on each others' nerves and we weren't bored for even a minute," said Merwin, 67, a widow whose two children and seven grandchildren summered with her, beginning in 1955. Between summers she worked at a variety of Forest Service jobs.

"In May we'd pack everything--dishes, clothes, bedding, folding cots and food for two or three weeks. In the early days, before we got water piped up there, the Forest Service would bring water in five-gallon cans once a week. All day you stood on your feet and watched for fires and you learned to do chores at the same time. You couldn't leave at night, so relatives would bring up groceries."

Merwin was schooled in fire-spotting by the U.S. Forest Service and learned how to radio reports of "check flash" (suspicion of fire), "smoke flash" and "fire flash."

For a smoke flash, "you had to be definite about it being smoke but not sure it was a fire," she said. "With a fire flash you had to be sure. You had to know the locations of people living in the mountains, and you'd get familiar with the type and color of different kinds of smoke.

"Some days we'd have three and four flashes, and sometimes a month would go by with nothing."

Lightning struck the tower "I don't know how many times," Merwin said. She would sit in her insulated chair reporting by radio the fires that were ignited by lightning in the rainless electric storms, and once she had to report her own tower. "I heard sizzling, and it was the roof wood burning," she said.

She remembers seeing a black bear, mountain lions, bobcats, deer, fox, raccoons "and some things I couldn't identify."

But the real dangers, and eventually the demise of the lookouts, were caused by humans.

"The greatest danger was planes buzzing the tower," Merwin said. "Suddenly they were right on you, so close you'd think they were going to hit."

Eventually, encroaching smog made it too difficult to identify smoke.

"Each year I would see smog come to the foothills, and each year it would come higher," Merwin said. "I'd see something coming over the ridge and I'd think it was smoke and report it. I don't know how many times I sent them chasing on smog. On Vetter I had only two sides that were clear enough that I could have been of any help in spotting fires."

A Forest Service spokesman said that with creeping urbanization in the foothills, spotting is done mostly by surveillance planes and by "thousands of eyes that can be counted on to report forest fires."

Merwin is retired in her San Fernando home now.

"I wasn't ready to retire," she said. "I didn't want to. I just loved it."

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