Idyllwild residents live in one of the most wildfire-prone forests in the country, with vivid, scorched reminders of past blazes dotting the evacuation routes from the Hill. But Hill communities are far from being proverbial “sitting ducks,” with no recourse to protecting their homes, properties and lives.
Oftentimes, the only thing that stands between a trail of smoke in the San Bernardino National Forest and a potentially catastrophic blaze is a lookout in one of the seven operational towers located there.
In addition to ground and air crews, equipment and other firefighting resources, teams of trained volunteers — many of them our neighbors — keep watch over the forest.
The late George Hall, an Idyllwild resident, volunteered for 20 years at Black Mountain Lookout located 13 miles from Idyllwild, off of Highway 243. A plaque mounted on a rock nearby commemorates his hard work and dedication.
Hall was a member of Ed Harrison’s corps of volunteers — now numbering 36 — at Black Mountain. “We’re like the lifeguards at the beach or the alarm bells [in a school or building],” Harrison said.
“Lookouts help the Idyllwild community by watching for smoke … when a fire is just a single branch on a single tree — I’ve seen it many times.
“Those fires don’t tend to make the 5 o’clock news, but if we weren’t spotting the smoke, they would be on the news because they would be consuming thousands of acres. We can get a crew out when it is a $100 fire instead of a million dollar one.”
Last October, Black Mountain volunteers spotted the Azalea Fire near the Girl Scout camp north of Idyllwild.
“It was reported by someone on the trail,” Harrison said, “but volunteers Blair Smith and Paul Marak took photos from the tower and called in directions to the fire.
“The Lake Elsinore blaze in October was way out of our area of responsibility, but volunteer Sig Fertig called it in. Normally, we only report fires in or threatening our forest.”
For the 2017 season, Black Mountain called in three smokes within the forest and 12 threatening the forest.
Bob and Norma Romano are the team leaders for lookouts at Tahquitz Peak tower. Paul McDonnell leads volunteers at Red Mountain Tower. Both towers look out over Hill communities.
Volunteers began staffing the towers May 20, working minimum eight-hour shifts once a month from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. when the facilities close, but many volunteers donate far more of their time.
The Southern California Mountains Foundation coordinates all tower volunteers — about 300 — including those at Butler, Keller, Morton and Strawberry.
“We partner with the U.S. Forest Service,” Pam Morey said. “They own the towers, but we think they’re ours. Ask any volunteer, they’ll tell you, ‘We own them.’
“We maintain them on donations, things like extra lumber, paint, batteries, prepaid cards, anything. Help is always needed.”
Every year, from late May to Veterans Day, lookouts notify forestry officials when they spot smoke.
“We look for threats to the surrounding communities and the forest, fires started by a lightning strike, or a manmade cause along a roadside where someone can see it right away and get on their cell phone and report it,” Harrison said.
“But the lightning strikes are more in unpopulated areas, and from our vantage point, we can spot a trail of smoke.”
At an elevation of 7,772 feet, Black Mountain tower volunteers can see the Santa Rosa Mountains, Mt. Palomar Observatory to the south and San Gorgonio Pass to the north.
On days when Santa Ana winds have cleared the air, Catalina and San Clemente islands in L.A. and San Diego counties are visible.
Fertig, a volunteer at Black Mountain for almost seven years, recollects how Black Mountain helped break a record.
“A few years back … in July 2014, [team leader] Ed received a phone call from a gentleman at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains. He asked Ed if someone was on the tower.
“Norm Vargas was observatory staff. He said, ‘I have a [21-inch-by-34-inch] mirror that I brought from home and I want to flash it to see if your tower guy can see it.’
“He flashed it and the guy in the tower was able to see the mirror. That was a record — about 79 miles as the crow flies — direct line of sight. His previous record was 34 miles. On a clear day, that’s how far you can see.”
Vargas’ extraordinary feat continues to amaze Fertig, but the routine of scanning the forest is what originally drew him to the tower.
“I was retired and I thought it would be a really neat and helpful thing to do. I really enjoy it.
“We receive 24 hours of training and spend one eight-hour shift with a current volunteer who has a checklist to make sure we know all the procedures and are competent to do them on our own. We also greet visitors, about 2,750 a year.
“When we arrive, the first thing we do is drive through the Boulder Basin Campground about a half-mile from the tower and count how many spaces are occupied and put that in our log. If I see wildlife — mostly deer and bobcat — I’ll put that in the log, but bear warning signs are posted.
“Inside the tower, when we scan and see smoke, we record its color and use an Osborne Fire Finder — a 360-degree wheel that sits in the middle of the tower — to determine its distance, bearing, and we also determine a nearby landmark.
“The Osborne has a map of the entire area which we can see — and actually we can see more than that. We use a hand-held radio to convey the information to the San Bernardino forest dispatch, which decides how to respond.”
Fertig scans for smoke every 15 minutes and prepares weather reports — usually twice daily — recording wind direction and speed, ambient temperature and relative humidity.
“We call that in to the forest service to help firefighters on the ground prepare for their day.”
With a great deal of pride, Harrison tells the story of “how one of our lookouts spotted a smoldering leaf pile a couple of years ago behind a cabin in Idyllwild.
“The fire crew went out and was able to extinguish the fire. It was an absentee owner, but then the fire crew came to the tower to thank our volunteer for spotting it. They were amazed he could spot the smoldering from that distance.”
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