The roof is rotted, the smashed windows have been boarded up, and the railings of its creaky walkway are badly rusted. Scrub oak, buckthorn and pine grow amid a jumble of boulders, and red-tailed hawks soar overhead.
In its present condition it is hard to imagine that the lookout cabin once played an important part in safeguarding the Angeles National Forest against fires.
But it is precisely that importance that has earned a new lease on life for the weather-worn cabin perched on a craggy outcrop of Mt. Vetter, nearly 6,000 feet above a fork of Big Tujunga Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The 13-by-13-foot "ground cab," as U.S. Forest Service archeologist Mike McIntyre calls it, was the last in a line of 22 lookouts that have come and gone since the first one was built in 1927.
It was retired as a fire lookout a decade ago and since then has fallen on hard times. But thanks to surplus timber sales by national forests in Northern California last year, the Forest Service has acquired funds to launch a $16,000 project that will give two of three surviving lookouts a face lift and preserve them as historic displays.
"When you think of the Forest Service, you think of Smokey the Bear and the ranger in the lookout watching for fires," said McIntyre, who spearheaded the restoration drive. "We want to turn this into an interpretive exhibit."
Aiding in the restoration effort will be the Big Santa Anita Historical Society in Arcadia. It pledged $5,000 toward refurnishing the bare lookout cabins at Vetter, 10 miles north of Arcadia, and at South Mt. Hawkins, 12 miles east of Vetter. A third cabin, built in the 1960s, did not fare so well and will not be restored: It rests unused on a steel tower at Mt. Slide, overlooking Pyramid Lake.
Forest Service personnel and volunteers will begin patching up the cabins in coming months. It costs too much to bring a carpenter in to do the job, McIntyre said.
Glen Owens, president of the historical society, said many of the old forest lodges and mountain taverns have been destroyed or allowed to decay.
"There's not a whole lot of history left in the forest structurally," Owens said.
Both lookouts under restoration are eligible for inclusion in the federal National Register of Historic Places. That means that every rotted plank removed must be replaced with the same type of wood.
"It adds to the cost, but it's well worth it," said McIntyre, who is applying to have the cabins formally designated as historic.
After the restorations are finished, McIntyre hopes to get volunteer groups to adopt the cabins to help with their maintenance, he said, suggesting as possible helpers Boy Scout troops, firefighters' organizations or environmental associations.
The eventual goal is for volunteers to live in trailers at the cabin site, acting as security guards and providing visitors with historical information.
Clues to the Past
The lookouts are part of the lore of firefighting's past in the Angeles National Forest.
Before the advent of the cabins, park rangers would simply nail pieces of wood to a tree and climb up for a good perch, McIntyre said. Others would camp at a high point armed with a fire-finder, which resembles a large compass overlaying a map.
When lookout cabins came into use, the person on watch would remain at the station for six or seven months during the fire season each year. In the early 1950s the Forest Service had more than 5,000 manned fire lookouts nationwide. Today fewer than 600 remain; fewer than 100 of those are in California.
In the Angeles National Forest, propane stoves were used for cooking, and water had to be hauled up in five-gallon cans.
"It's a very solitary life," McIntyre said.
Sandy De Lapp, a Forest Service accountant, lived alone atop a 30-foot-high wooden tower in the South Mt. Hawkins lookout from 1952 until it was closed in 1980.
"Everybody thinks it's so romantic. But it's just a job," said De Lapp, conceding that she did enjoy the peace and quiet.
Between fires she read "everything you could get your hands on," from Tolstoy to the history of World War II, she said. She put out a pan of water for the birds and deer and fed a skunk that almost became a pet. And she always remained watchful for the warning puffs of smoke.
"You automatically just looked all the time," said De Lapp, who has watched more fires start than she cares to count.
She learned to stay alert for the lightning bolt that lingered for more than a second on a branch of a tree, "especially if it had a red tip."
Need Not So Dire Now
"Lookouts were critical at a time when there weren't many people in the forest," McIntyre said. At one time they reported about 70% of the fires that started, but their importance faded as more people started using the forest recreationally.
More roads penetrated the terrain, and rangers began to regularly patrol campgrounds. Twenty-four fire stations now serve the forest's 693,000 acres.
And because the forest lies under the flight path to Ontario International Airport, airline pilots began to call in reports of fires, said Gordon Rowley, Forest Service fire management specialist.
If a blaze is sighted, "the airline will call the tower, and the tower will call us," said Rowley, adding that by the time the lookouts were abandoned, they were reporting only 3% of the fires.
Even though they are now obsolete, Owens said, "we have to understand what people used to do to appreciate what we have today."