Several years ago, my mother gave me a photocopied magazine article about renting out fire lookout towers on the West Coast. Cheaper than a hotel and drier than a tent, the structures pictured in the piece were wooden towers elevated high up on a remote mountain, affording wide, picturesque views—the better to see fires with. Long ago decommissioned for official use, the lookouts in the article were available to intrepid campers willing to make the hikes to reach them. One thing I noticed from a quick glance at the article: none of the lookouts were in Southern California.
About two years ago, I found that article tucked into a book and it reignited my interest in fire lookouts and sent me spiraling down a Google rabbit hole. What I discovered was something better than just renting a lookout for the night. There was actually a volunteer society affiliated with the Angeles National Forest that was training people—volunteers—how to man the two remaining lookouts in the forest: Slide Mountain, at the *westernmost border of the forest, off the 5 Freeway near Pyramid Lake, and Vetter Mountain, off the Angeles Crest Highway in the mountains behind La Cañada. The commitment for volunteers was just one eight-and-a-half-hour shift a month for the seven-month season from May to November. I signed up.
The first day of training with the Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association was five hours long, combining an introductory class about our duties as volunteers with a three-hour session on natural history, general information about the forest's plant and animal life, and the history of the lookouts. The job of an ANFFLA volunteer, we learned that day, is multi-faceted: lookouts provide information to the tower's visitors on fire safety, the forest, and the volunteer program itself, all the while doing a 360-degree visual search for signs of fire every 15 minutes. Destroyed were my dreams of uninterrupted hours of catching up on my reading or extended naps on a chair in the sun.
The class was held in a large, full building at the Sylmar ranger station. There wasn't an empty chair in the house. The crowd was a diverse one, with half of the group looking like college students and the other half looking firmly over 60. A show of hands determined that pretty much everyone found out about this program from another volunteer. When the chatty, passionate people running the program introduce themselves, it's easy to imagine them talking to the grocery store bagger, the mail carrier, their neighbors about it. It's their enthusiasm that keeps the towers up and running; there is no government funding to staff the towers or really contribute to their upkeep. Though the kindly forest rangers do take a hands-on approach and offer up the resources they can (like buildings in which to hold meetings and training sessions), without the nonprofit that organizes the volunteers, the towers would be unmanned and probably decrepit.
During the lecture on our volunteer duties, photos were shown of both the lookouts. Only Slide Mountain is an actual building; Vetter Mountain is more of a shelter, a concrete slab on the floor covered by a metal and wood pergola. It was a beautiful building once, with glass windows and a wood stove inside, but it burned down in 2009's Station Fire. The pergola is just a few steps away from the original lookout site, where part of the foundation and the wavy stair railing still stand. ANFFLA has been raising money for years to begin rebuilding the lookout exactly as it was, on the same site. Last summer they poured concrete and started work on the foundation. As Pam, one of ANFFLA's founders, told us the backstory of Vetter, she got a little teary-eyed. "I'm sorry," she said, collecting herself. "It's just that I love these towers so much." At the next class, I noticed that her earrings were little gold fire lookouts.
As one volunteer recounted a story of riding out a lightning storm inside the lookout cabin, perched on top of the special insulated "lightning stool" that's in each tower for just such an occasion, it occurred to me that every person in the room—there were about 30 of us—had volunteered to give up almost nine hours a month to sit on top of a mountain to try and make sure the forest doesn't burn down. Before I could pat myself on the back, it was time to practice using all the tools we'd need every time we volunteered. There were a lot.
ANFFLA is a nonprofit, but when volunteers are on duty, they're working for the Forest Service. When we start our shifts, we take the temperature, to measure the relative humidity, and to note the direction of the wind. In the event that there's a blaze, we might be asked to share this information with forest personnel, as it is truly vital to firefighters and affects how a fire is managed—no pressure. At our class, we were also introduced to the Osborne fire finder, a heavy, complicated-looking apparatus that consists of a map under glass and a swiveling, circular, washer-like piece that allows lookout volunteers to give a Forest Service dispatcher good general directions to the location of a possible fire. Our weather kit also includes a wind-speed reader (anemometer) and a thermometer outfitted with a tiny sock over it that needs to be wetted with purified water and swung in the air like an old-fashioned noise-maker. (This one is a personal favorite.)
Our next class was seven hours long. A long-time volunteer gave a presentation featuring a succession of terrifying and fascinating facts about wildfires and their incredible power. Fires can change the weather. Embers can continue to smolder inside a tree for weeks—WEEKS!—after a blaze and are sometimes not discovered until much later, when the trees, burned from the inside out, begin to fall and crumble, potentially on unsuspecting people hiking nearby. Pens moved rapidly throughout the class, but especially when particularly gruesome facts were shared, like how a fire can get underground and burn the roots of a tree in such a way that the ground remains intact until someone walks over it, in which case that person falls into a hellish pit of hot embers. Then, shifting away from terror, we practiced using the tools and calling the Forest Service dispatchers over the radio. We filled out forms to get our official uniforms and nametags. This was our last class before we went on our first supervised field day.
The drive up to Vetter Mountain's shelter is a ten-minute refresher on why fire lookouts are needed. Although the Station Fire burned almost six years ago, the formerly popular Charlton Flats Picnic Area still looks like the crews left yesterday. Blackened stumps are everywhere and picnic tables misshapen by the heat peek out from overgrowth. Because the area is still recovering, the gates to the picnic area remain closed to cars, so most of the passersby on our first hot day were hikers who were glad to have a shady place to sit. The impeccably clean bathroom next to the lookout is also popular. Each of the four visitors we had during our shift asked about the old lookout, when it's getting rebuilt, and shared stories about how much they liked to come up and visit it before it burned down. Every visitor says, "Thank you for volunteering to do this" and signs the guest book. And then they carry on.
More information about the Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association can be found on their website, ANFFLA.org.