By RHEA-FRANCES TETLEY
The celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Strawberry Peak fire lookout tower on Oct. 28 was declared a complete success by the organizers, the fire lookout tower host volunteers. Fire lookout volunteers help protect the forest, local mountain communities and communities along the forest boundary from the threat of fire. The fire lookout hosts also act as docents to those who visit the towers.
The Forest Service sent several fire trucks and crews to the celebration, plus the Forest Service workers were there, as well as many former lookout volunteers and, most importantly, so was Smokey Bear. Shane Harris, the fire lookout program manager, was there greeting the visitors.
They were all amazed to see so many people coming up to the fire lookout tower to visit, many for the first time. Many of those first-timers said they had always intended to visit and this anniversary was a motivating factor. They enjoyed hot dogs with toppings or with chili and hot cider, plus a decorated anniversary.
The star of the show was the 90-year-old Strawberry Peak fire lookout out tower, which the visitors climbed up and looked around from its catwalk around its edge. The 14×14-foot square room in the sky has a clear view since it’s on the top of Strawberry Peak with a view of almost the entire forest.
Strawberry Peak gets its name from a strawberry farm owned by Bart Smithson from the 1870s-80s. The 30-foot tower you see today was built in 1933. Its volunteers have been forest guardians, looking for smoke that could indicate a fire threatening the forest and its residents for the past 30 years. Every 15 minutes they scan the sky and forest for any wisps of smoke and, if they see any, they locate it on the Osborne Fire Finder and phone its position into the command center, which investigates the smoke origins and sends a response team to squash any potential fire starts.
This section of the forest – surrounded by the city of San Bernardino on the south side and the desert on the north – is one of the narrowest national forests, only about six miles wide. The view on a clear day is from Cucamonga Peak to Mount Baldy, out to the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island and into the desert to the north.
Because in this forest there are numerous communities from Cedarpines Park to the west and Big Bear in the east, the chance for fire is greater, since the majority of fires are human caused. The training offered by the fire lookout host program teaches the hosts how to determine the type and source of any smoke they may seeing, how to pinpoint its location and how to accurately report it to first responders.
There are three lookout towers in this part of the forest, including the Running Springs area’s Keller Peak lookout, which at 97 years old and built in 1926, is the oldest local lookout, and the Butler Peak lookout nearer Fawnskin, which has been closed this season due to a washed-out road.
Because of the cloud layer below the lookout tower, the south side view from the tower during the celebration was obscured, as the clouds looked like the ocean lapping up to the mountainside. However, the lookout hosts were still inspecting the forests above the clouds and out to the north side of the mountain, over to the Pinnacles and desert. They demonstrated how they use the Osborne Fire Finder to the visitors. Fortunately, there was no smoke discovered during the party.
Strawberry Peak has an excellent record of seeing and reporting fires first, including the Old Fire exactly 20 years ago (Oct. 25, 2003), which began in Waterman Canyon.
The Strawberry Peak lookout tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and was manned by the USFS. The first major fire spotted from the tower was the November 1938 Arrowhead Fire, which burned 11,000 acres over a four-day period, on the south face of the San Bernardino Mountains during a wind event. It was this fire that devastated the third Arrowhead Springs Hotel (built in 1906) which led to the construction of the current hotel and facilities now owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, who purchased it in 2017.
Harris is seeking new lookout host volunteers for training that will begin in the spring of 2024, for next year’s fire season. They are taking signups now. They usually close up the towers for the season, weather permitting, after the Santa Ana winds disperse for the season and the first rains begin. They predict they will close around the end of November this year. They work in the towers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week during fire season and later during fire alerts and red flag warnings. They welcome visitors. If you are interested in becoming a trained fire lookout host to help protect these mountains, email Harris at [email protected].
The fire lookouts are currently manned by volunteers coordinated by the Southern California Mountains Foundation. Their mission is organizing critical volunteer resources focused on the health and sustainability of Southern California’s mountains and forests. According to their website, “Over the past 30 years, the use of national forests has increased while federal funding has dramatically declined. The Foundation works to bridge that gap and add value to our local mountains through the visitor experience. It takes the efforts of our staff and the trained volunteers to support that work.
The Strawberry Peak 90th anniversary party was an opportunity for current and past lookout hosts to get together and visit since they work various shifts and do not get to socialize with each other often. Local resident and former fire lookout host Bruce Risher was there, wearing his Strawberry Peak 80th anniversary shirt and commenting, “I am so glad they are celebrating this important occasion and I’m looking forward to seeing you all in three years over at the Keller Peak’s centennial party.”