By RHEA-FRANCES TETLEY
The current Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The fire lookout hosts will be celebrating its 90th birthday this coming Saturday, Oct. 28 from noon to 3 p.m. at the lookout on Strawberry Peak.
The first fire lookout in the mountain area was built in 1922, after the large 1922 fire. The Lake Arrowhead Corporation stationed a man on a platform, with binoculars and a telephone, during daylight hours: “In the highest tree (130 feet tall) on the highest peak…located approximately in the center of the property” (on the North Shore), a Lake Arrowhead promotional brochure stated. “From this vantage point it is an easy matter to locate any fire and phone in the alarm.”
This gave Lake Arrowhead property owners great peace of mind and lower fire insurance premiums. This lookout tree was staffed until 1934. That tree died about 27 years later and was removed in 1962.
The San Bernardino National Forest became a separate forest in 1925. The Clark-McNary Acts of 1924 and 1925 provided funds to protect the national forests from fire by taking preventative measures, such as building fire breaks and lookout towers.
The first local fire lookout tower built by the Forest Service was on the ridge west of Grass Valley in June 1925 and was manned during the fire seasons. That tall wooden structure collapsed during strong winds during the winter of 1933.
When the Great Depression hit, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created as a work relief program which gave millions of young men employment on environmental projects. The workers of the CCC built the current Strawberry Peak Lookout Tower, which is 30 feet tall. It was completed before the summer fire season in 1933.
Strawberry Peak, at an elevation of 6,135 feet, was chosen as the location for the new metal tower which has a 360-degree view, with views to the Pacific Ocean and all of the San Bernardino Valley to Mount Baldy and out to the High Desert on a clear day.
The 14-square foot lookout tower is a room in the sky; it is all windows and has a deck that surrounds it for an unobstructed view of the forest. Inside the room is the Osborne Firefinder, a device designed in 1920 to determine a fire’s location by measuring the compass bearing and enables a lookout worker to determine the distance of the smoke from the tower. This precise devise is still used in 2023.
On May 20, 1933, the San Bernardino Daily Sun printed a small news article which referred to the better location and usefulness of the new tower, stating, “Construction began yesterday and it is estimated that work will be completed within a week.”
Stationed in camps across these mountains, the CCC workers achieved great success in fire suppression. For example, during the 1920s in the Southern California national forests, 913,700 acres were burned. After a few years of the CCC beginning to lay truck trails, building fire breaks and thinning the forests, only 395,700 acres burned in the 1930s. United States Forester E.A. Sherman predicted that disastrous fires would soon be a thing of the past and that “within five years such fires will be unthinkable and impossible.”
However, just a few years later, after a few years of drought, in November 1938, the Arrowhead Fire, which lasted four days, burned 11,000 acres on the south side of the mountain front, including destroying the famed Arrowhead Springs Hotel.
The Strawberry Peak tower has been in operation almost constantly since 1933 during fire season, initially manned by the U.S. Forest Service until it was decommissioned and reopened by volunteers in 1982. Located above and visible from Highway 18 west of Rimforest, it receives about 4,000 visitors annually.
The lookout host visually checks the entire forest every 15 minutes with binoculars, looking for smoke, as an early warning system. When a lookout volunteer observes a puff of smoke, it is tracked, located with the Osborne Firefinder, getting a precise location, and then reports to the fire dispatch center. From Strawberry Peak, many fires have been detected, located and called in, so the fire can be attacked and extinguished before it gets too big and out of control. The lookout hosts volunteer through fire season, which usually ends when winter storms arrive.
During red flag wind warnings, extra observations are taken by the volunteers. Lightning strikes are a major safety concern to lookout hosts because the metal lookout towers are on the highest point of the mountain, so everything is set on insulators. In case of a severe storm or fire and the need to vacate the tower becomes evident, it only takes 15 minutes to shut it all down before the host can safely exit.
To reach the fire lookout tower from Highway 18 in Rimforest, drive up Bear Springs Road (across from the Valero gas station) for about two miles and on a right-hand curve in the road (which has a tree in the road with a fire lookout symbol on it), turn left and slowly drive up the narrow road, following the signs to the tower. When you arrive at the top of Strawberry Peak, there is some parking next to the microwave communication building located next to the lookout tower. After climbing the steep steps to the top of the fire lookout tower, there are fantastic vistas to see. Because of the small size of the room, only five visitors are allowed at the top at any one time.
When visiting the lookout tower, bring binoculars and a camera. The lookout hosts share the natural and fire history of the forest with the visitors. Classes for volunteers to become fire lookout hosts are held each April though the Southern California Mountains Foundation.
This 90th anniversary celebration of the Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout Tower will have Smokey Bear visiting, and they will serve hot dogs. The volunteer hosts invite the community to help them celebrate the 90 years of this tower serving and protecting the mountain communities.