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Lookout Tower Is Back as First Line of Fire Defense

Safety: Volunteers in the 'lighthouses of the land' can spot smoke and summon a response more quickly than high-tech counterparts.


Scouts riding in small planes can spot smoke from thousands of feet above. Infrared technology can map blazes from miles away.

But sometimes, for fire detection, nothing beats a human being, peering through binoculars, inside a "lighthouse of the land," an old-fashioned fire lookout.

After an absence of nearly two decades, fire lookouts have returned to Southern California forests, part of a national trend that in recent years has seen a resurgence of the tiny one-room cabins with uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the treetops.

Perched on stilts atop peaks as high as 13,000 feet above sea level, many of the nation's lookout towers had fallen into disuse by the 1980s, victims of budget cuts, technological innovations and, in Southern California, smog.

Forestry officials are initiating a survey of how many lookouts have been restored and restaffed in recent years, both on federal and state lands.

The Forest Fire Lookout Assn. estimates that there are 2,000 lookouts nationwide, about half of them staffed. In the 1980s, only a few hundred were in use.

In Southern California, a dedicated corps of volunteers has begun to repair and restaff the lookouts--most of which were built in the 1930s and '40s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and were once staffed by a single employee who lived alone all summer.

"I think there's a certain romance in fire lookouts," said Kris Assel, executive director of the San Bernardino National Forest Assn., a nonprofit group that has resurrected seven of eight lookouts there. "It's a neat piece of history that fits into modern forest management."

It's been 100 years since a timber cook was assigned to a hilltop tree to watch for wildfires in Bertha Hill, Idaho--what many consider the birth of the modern fire lookout. By the 1940s and '50s, the number of fire lookouts had swelled to nearly 8,000.

This summer, as the West experiences an intensely dangerous fire season, more than 400 volunteers are stationed at lookouts in the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests. The Cleveland and Los Padres forests do not have working lookouts; volunteers hope to revive them in a few years.

The job of the fire watcher, alone among the trees, has long captured the imagination. Jack Kerouac wrote of the appeal and quiet beauty of the two summer months he spent on a lookout in Washington in "The Dharma Bums":

"I saw a sea of marshmallow clouds flat as a roof and extending miles and miles in every direction.... All I had to do was keep an eye on all horizons for smoke and run the two-way radio and sweep the floor."

Some of today's fire watchers hope to share the history of America's lookouts with the many hikers, bikers and others who pass by. Others are retired firefighters who have found, with the support of the U.S. Forest Service, a new way to serve the people who live below.

"It's all one big family," said George Morey, a screen installer who with his wife, Pam, runs the Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Assn. "We are from all walks of life, but we all love the same thing."

The Moreys, who live in the San Bernardino forest, joined that forest's lookout program nine years ago. "We went to training," said Pam Morey, "and got more and more involved. Now, between work and that, it's our life."

The San Bernardino group originally hoped to reopen the sites as "interpretive centers" where visitors could learn about fire prevention and lookout history.

As interest in the history of the lookouts grew, so did interest in their original mission--a mission that was aided by stricter emissions rules that had helped clear much of the smog that once hindered smoke-tracking from above.

Lookout volunteers now are also rigorously trained by forest officials in weather reporting and radio operations. In the San Bernardino, volunteers must undergo 22 hours of classroom instruction before participating in supervised in-tower training.

"It's very similar to the way the National Ski Patrol volunteers work," said Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Assn., a national group. "There's a dedicated crew of people who can get things done that employees can't.

"The San Bernardino is to be commended for setting a national standard that no other forest has since copied," he added. "But the Angeles is coming on strong."

Volunteers reopened two Angeles lookouts in 1998 and 1999 and hope to open a third soon.

Mike McIntyre, the Angeles forest's heritage resource program manager, said that after some initial skepticism, forest officials welcome their aid in detecting fires. "At first, people didn't understand the program," he said. "But now they see how consistent the volunteers have been in their work, and how they have helped with fire reports."

Now, McIntyre said, "I believe everybody sees the worth of the program and supports it. And the volunteers have become good ambassadors for the forest."

Already this year, lookouts have spotted one fire in the Angeles and three in the San Bernardino.

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