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California for sky huggers

Look out below. Visitors to the state's renovated fire towers find simple solitude -- and the forest at their feet.

September 17, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks — 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.

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