Time in the Tower: High Point

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High Point
Nearly seventy feet above the highest peak on Palomar Mountain sits a 13 x 13-foot structure. With six flights of stairs in a switch-back design leading to the top, reaching this small space—the cab, as it’s called—isn’t easy. The 6,140-foot elevation at which High Point Lookout Tower’s base resides is a contributing factor to the oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-breathe experience that accompanies the climb.

But once the climb is over (and you catch your breath), it’s worth it. The 360-degree view overlooking forests, valleys, faraway mountain ranges, and desert communities is one that few get to experience.20160514_090429

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I’m one of the lucky ones. I am a forest fire lookout volunteer with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, San Diego-Riverside Chapter. The breath-taking views, fresh air, and solitude of the tower are perks of the job; and that’s all they are—perks. Being a forest fire lookout is more than sitting at the top of a tower, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and waiting for a fire to start somewhere. It’s about vigilance, dedication, professionalism, and partnering with local agencies to keep the area safe from wildfires.

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Me. That white thing in the background is Palomar Observatory

Before I started my training, I had my own ideas as to what I would be doing as a volunteer lookout. I envisioned sitting at a small table, my laptop plugged into the nearest outlet, and using the solitude to work on my sure-to-be bestselling novel. Of course I would need to look up from time to time to make sure the county wasn’t burning down, but how hard could that be? You see smoke, you call 9-1-1, right?

Wrong.

My romantic visions of being a weekend J.D. Salinger were quelled during the orientation meeting. It was then that I learned I would be responsible for weather recording and reporting, learning landmarks, and how to use the azimuth/Osborne Fire Finder.

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An Osborne Fire Finder—works by lining up the sight and cross hairs on a smoke. Once lined up, the degree can be found by looking along the outside of the circle. From there, the map in the center is used to determine distance and nearby landmarks.

Most importantly, I would be expected to report any smoke I see—along with its location, distance away, and nearest landmarks. Being a forest fire lookout is a lot of work! And that’s fine by me. I like a challenge and this one is rewarding for so many reasons! The hours I’ve spent training so far have confirmed that this is my kind of “job.”

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High Point Lookout Tower              from the ground

 

Looking Out for Forest Fires

Smokey3Palomar Mountain in San Diego County has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Camping, fishing, hiking, winter camp … these activities have been the source of most of my favorite childhood memories.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a new-to-me mountain treasure—the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower. There has been a tower located on the site since 1921, so why I had never been there nor heard of it before then, I don’t know.

One day when I brought my boys to the lookout site, there were a couple of people working in the tower who called down to us that we could come up and take a look around.

I was amazed. Really? We’re allowed to go to the top of the tower and maybe even walk along the catwalk? Heck, yeah! I pushed aside my natural reluctance to make small talk with people and dragged my boys up the three flights of stairs to the cab of the lookout tower.

I was smitten. The view, the history, the location … does it get much better than this? I knew we’d be back.

On our next visit, we waited to be invited up by the tower lookouts. This time, I was in a more talkative mood. When I found out that the lookouts were married to each other, I had to ask: Are you both rangers?

They said people often mistake them for park rangers because of their uniforms, but they are actually volunteers. Wait—volunteers? Yep. And the organization was always looking for more. I knew from that moment that I wanted—needed—to be a volunteer forest fire lookout. So the couple gave me a phone number and email address and I went went down the mountain, head filled with visions of dressing up like a forest ranger and spending time in the fire tower.

I had to wait almost a full year; the training for the season had just ended and the next session wouldn’t be held until the following April. I was disappointed, but I didn’t lose interest.

I began my training this past April and I learned pretty quickly that there is a lot more to being a volunteer fire lookout than the uniform and sitting in a tower, looking for smoke. But I’ll have to save all that for another post.

Smokey the Bear photo by Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons