With the start of Southern California wildfire season only weeks away, an organization that operates fire lookout towers in the San Bernardino National Forest is actively seeking volunteers to staff seven mountaintop towers from which forest rangers can be alerted when a blaze erupts.
“We do the quiet part — call in the smoke,” Pam Morey of Cedar Pines told City News Service. “We don’t go in and fight the fire.”
Morey is a veteran member of the nonprofit Southern California Mountains Foundation, a U.S. Forest Service partner for the last 25 years, dedicated to spotting fires for rangers.
Wildfire season generally runs from early May to the end of November, and Morey said so-called “lookout hosts” are critical assets during that time, identifying and getting a fix on where a blaze is burning in its earliest stage.
The foundation operates three lookout towers on the Riverside County side of the national forest — Black Mountain, Red Mountain and Tahquitz Peak — and four towers on the San Bernardino County side of the preserve — Butler Peak, Keller Peak, Morton Peak and Strawberry Peak.
“Tahquitz Peak (just west of Palm Springs) is the hardest to keep staffed because it’s a five-mile hike to get up there,” Morey told CNS. “But we have a volunteer who’s 92, and he still hikes there. He takes his time.”
According to Morey, the goal is to keep all towers staffed seven days a week throughout fire season, though it’s not always possible.
Host lookouts are supplied with binoculars but otherwise have to bring their own food and water for however long they spend on a shift.
“Some volunteers spend a day and a night and come back down,” Morey said. “We have couples who staff towers together.”
In a good year, the foundation might recruit 300 volunteers, but Morey acknowledged that some don’t stay for the duration of fire season, and towers end up unmanned.
She said volunteers have been as young as 16 years old.
Training involves attending four classes, the longest of which is a daylong in-tower course or initiation.
After successfully completing the classes, first-time volunteers are paired with seasoned hosts to complete their orientation, after which they’re free to work alone.
“Being on top of a mountain is just fantastic,” Morey said. “You see so much. There’s so much happening. It’s a great was to de-stress, and it makes you stop and smell the roses.”
The first training session is scheduled for April 9.
Information about the foundation is available at www.mountainsfoundation.org/.
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