Fire lookout host Dan Zahner encourages folks to sign up as volunteers. (Photo by Mary-Justine Lanyon)
Eyes on the forest protect the mountain communities
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
The first fire lookout tower built in California was in the Donner Pass. It was built in 1876 by the Union Pacific Railroad to watch over the rail lines.
“Trains were the source of a lot of fires,” fire lookout tower host Dan Zahner told members of the Crestline-Lake Gregory Rotary Club.
Back in the day, he noted, “it was your problem to put out a fire that started on your property.”
When the U.S. Forest Service was authorized in 1905, it was “a sleepy agency,” Zahner said. “Now we live in an island surrounded by national forest.”
The fire lookout towers that are part of the Southern California Mountains Foundation have jurisdiction over national forest service lands. “The problem is, fires tend not to stay in the national forest,” Zahner said.
The network of lookout towers grew out of a perceived need after the Great Fire of 1910. It started in northern Idaho and burned parts of Washington, Montana, up into Canada. Three million acres burned, Zahner said. “Then someone decided they needed a system.”
So, in 1918, there was a massive move to build fire lookout towers as fast as they could. Across the U.S., 5,000 to 6,000 were built, with almost 600 in California. Today there are 198 fire lookout towers remaining in California with only 50 manned by human volunteers.
San Bernardino County has four active towers – Strawberry Peak, Keller Peak, Butler Peak and Morton Peak – more than any other California county.
The fire lookout towers welcome visitors. Pre-COVID, Zahner said, Strawberry Peak would get 6,000 visitors a year. “We’re on track this year for 4,000,” he said. “Our visitors come from all over the world.”
What astounds him is the number of people who have lived on the mountain for years and yet have never visited one of the fire lookout towers.
As for Strawberry Peak, where Zahner volunteers, the first “tower” went into service in 1922. It was just a giant pine tree with a platform at the top and a ladder to reach it. It was taken down after the current tower was completed in 1933.
In the past, Zahner said, many of the volunteers came from other counties. “Last year we decided to put an emphasis on getting locals to volunteer. You’re here, have some local knowledge, have a vested interest in protecting the mountain.”
Volunteers are trained in March and April so they are ready to man the towers on May 1, when the towers usually open. As for the qualifications, Zahner said you have to be over 18, be able to make it up 35 steps, have no fear of heights and have no fear of talking on the radio.
“A lot of people ask why we need fire towers when we have satellites and drones. I tell them to look at the satellite feed. As soon as it clouds over, you can’t see and you can’t tell if it’s a fire or smoke from the cement plant.”
He added that “drones cost a huge amount of money. I would argue they are inferior to what we do in the tower.”
Zahner notes that, when on duty, the volunteers are constantly turning to look in every direction. “A drone only looks where the camera is pointed.”
The majority of fires occur because of one of two factors, Zahner said: lightning and human beings.
The volunteers call in the coordinates for any smoke they spot. A “smoke check” means the volunteer sees some smoke but is not sure if it is a threat to the national forest. They may not even be sure if it is smoke. A “smoke report” is definitely a threat to the national forest and to the mountain communities.
“We follow certain protocol when we file reports,” Zahner said.
He told the Rotarians he was in the tower three weeks ago when there were some thunderstorms. “Things get very exciting in the tower,” he said. “Thunderstorms generate false fire signals – water dogs. If the temperature is right, little spontaneous clouds of white pop up in the forest. It looks like smoke but it’s not.”
However, a volunteer at Keller Peak had called in a smoke check. Zahner turned Strawberry Peak’s Osborne (the instrument they use to pinpoint smoke’s location) in that direction and gave a counter bearing. A water drop on three smoking trees prevented a fire from developing.
The Manzanita Fire, Zahner said, developed from smoldering trees that no one saw.
During a thunderstorm, the volunteers record the locations of lightning strikes and follow up on them for two weeks as they can continue to smolder.
“We need your help,” Zahner said. “If you are interested in being a fire lookout tower volunteer, sign up now and give it a try next season.”
Anyone who is interested can send an email to [email protected].
For more information on fire lookout towers, visit https://mountainsfoundation.org/programs/fire-lookouts.