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Their old flame: lookout towers

Vanishing antiques of another era, the remote aeries draw volunteers who seek solitude as they scan for fires they hope will never come.

December 14, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

A long, hot summer day in August is about to end -- and so far nothing to report. Not even a car accident on Interstate 5. Fishing boats cut lazy trails in the blue waters of Pyramid Lake.

Just as John Cordi prepares to lock up the fire lookout tower perched on the top of Slide Mountain, he spots something on the horizon.

"What is that?" he shouts.

Smoke. A massive billow rising to the north.

Cordi, a stocky copier repairman from Signal Hill, has been a lookout volunteer in the Angeles National Forest for two years and has yet to spot a single fire.

Until now.

Fire officials predicted that 2006 would be a bad year in the local mountains. They were right. The Day fire, which broke out Sept. 4, became one of the longest-burning fires in California history and the Esperanza fire in the neighboring San Bernardino National Forest near Cabazon killed five firefighters. Most recently, a fire near Moorpark destroyed five houses and damaged several others.

From spring to winter, fire season in Southern California brings ominous uncertainty. Catching a spark before it becomes a tragedy remains the greatest challenge and lookout volunteers such as Cordi play a historic if slightly antiquated role in this era of cellphones, forest-monitoring satellites and infrared cameras.

Still, Cordi is undaunted. On this August afternoon, he picks up the radio receiver and breathlessly calls in the blaze. This could be a first. The dispatch operator tells him that the smoke had already been spotted by a firefighter who had seen it from his car. It was already being contained as Cordi watched.

Scooped again.

*

May 17

For volunteers signing up for lookout duty, fire season begins mid-May in a stale Pasadena classroom sandwiched between a Pilates studio and law offices.

They are truck drivers, software consultants, retirees and construction contractors. For two days, they pore through training manuals and brochures produced by the Forest Service, which spends about $2,000 a year on the supplies and maintenance of the towers.

Their charge -- the 650,000-acre Angeles National Forest -- is a mountain range nearly the size of Rhode Island, with dense chaparral in the lowlands and pine and fir groves near the peaks. It forms a boat-shaped buffer between the Mojave Desert and the nation's second most populous metropolis.

Lookout towers in Southern California have been around since the late 1800s. During World War II, they served as posts for spotters, who scanned the skies for enemy planes, but by the 1980s many had either burned down or were dismantled. In states such as Washington and Colorado, the Forest Service still employs lookout personnel, but across the country the number of towers has dwindled greatly. About 70 years ago there were 8,000; today there are 2,000. In Southern California, there are no more than 18; only two remain in the Angeles National Forest.

Nationwide, volunteers put in hundreds of hours each year on these isolated peaks, refusing to let the remaining towers become anachronisms like the firehouse Dalmatian. Volunteers raise money, sell T-shirts, patches and books. They do it because they believe the safety of the forest shouldn't be left to a passing motorist with a cellphone or to a satellite orbiting 438 miles above the Earth. They do it because they can't bear to see these creaky, iconic towers disappear.

Back in the Pasadena classroom, local volunteers learn how to use a two-way radio and hand-held weather gauges and thermometers, and are introduced to the Osborne Fire Finder. This heavy metal, oval-shaped instrument was invented in 1911 and used widely in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps built most of the fire towers throughout the country. The direction and distance to a fire can be judged by aiming its crosshairs. It's reliable -- but in the same way a slide rule is reliable.

When someone raises the question of safety -- what to do if a fire threatens a tower -- the Forest Service teacher says that the radio dispatcher would provide instructions.

There was good reason for the concern. The Angeles National Forest has lost 20 lookout towers over the last 30 years, nearly all to fire.

*

June 1

The Vetter Mountain lookout tower is a tower in name only. It sits flat on a peak 5,908 feet above sea level at the southern edge of the forest and offers a Godlike view. To the south, radio towers protrude from Mt. Wilson. Mt. Baldy's smooth peak rises out of a haze in the east. Strawberry Peak juts out of the western horizon and Mt. Pacifico dominates the northern skyline. From above, the undulating valleys and canyons below look like folds of wrinkled green felt.

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