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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”