A long history of watchfulness
If you are a history buff or just spend a lot of time in the surrounding forests, there is an event coming up Friday, Sept. 8, through Sunday, Sept. 10, which may be of interest.
The Forest Fire Lookout Association is holding its Western Region Conference in Chester and over the three days will incorporate numerous speakers, displays and tours of several of the Lassen National Forest lookouts.
In-town events will be held at the Chester Memorial Hall with registration beginning at 1 p.m., Friday, Sept. 8.
Conference coordinator Vickie Lamoureux stressed that there will be association members attending from across the U.S. and Canada.
“There will be a wealth of information and many stories about long past and current history of our nations lookouts,” Lamoureux said and she should know. Lamoureux decided to become a fire lookout after visiting the Hopi Fire Tower near the Grand Canyon.
Thirty-four years later, she is still at it and for the past three years has been assigned to Pegleg Lookout just a short distance from Westwood.
Pegleg was originally built in 1913 and then replaced in 1984 with a new structure.
The construction of the new structure was unique in that it was prefabricated and put together with prison inmate labor. Each part was then labeled, dismantled and shipped to the site where it was reassembled.
A replica of the original Pegleg Lookout can be seen as a display at the Lassen County Fairgrounds.
Forest fire lookouts have been an integral part of fire detection and suppression in this country’s forests for many years.
There are numerous references about old lookouts in books and on the Internet, but as a historical base, the data listed on the United States Forest Service history site is used.
These records indicate that, “Following the devastating fires of 1910, early fire detection became a priority within the Forest Service. To help aid detection, lookout towers began to be built on national forests throughout the country.”
The magnitude of this effort was overwhelming, not only because of the vast number that were needed, but also due to the remote locations and difficult conditions encountered in building on mountain tops.
To help speed up the progress of building these much needed lookouts, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, were brought in to work on numerous lookout projects acrossthe nation.
As these new lookout sites were being constructed, an Oregon man by the name of William Osborne, Jr. invented an instrument called a “firefinder” in 1911.
He used a rotating steel disc with sighting mechanisms attached. The instrument allowed lookouts to accurately pinpoint the geographic location of forest fires by sighting distant smoke through the device.
Osborne continued to improve his design for almost 30 years and the firefinder is still widely used today.
Due to many reasons, including budget cuts, increased costs of replacing worn-out or damaged buildings, and technological changes, the number of fire lookouts has diminished over the decades.
There are many people who are completely convinced that “boots on the mountain” are still the quickest and most efficient way of detecting and reporting fire for the safety of communities.
The FFLA was founded in 1990 as a means to record the long and successful history of fire lookouts nationwide and to promote the restoration and preservation of these historical sites not currently in use.
Tour a fire lookout
For those not aware of the many fire lookouts that are currently being manned here in Plumas and Lassen counties, there will be several choices of car pool tours on Saturday as part of the FFLA conference.
The $30 pre-registration cost for the three-day conference is available until Aug. 30. After that, registration is $35. For those wanting to attend an event or two, there is a $10 daily drop-in fee, not including food.
Lamoureux said that youth under 16 could accompany a paying adult on the tour at no cost.
Attendees will have a great opportunity to learn about the history and current use of local lookouts with speakers that include Lassen Park Superintendent Jim Richardson; Ray Kresek, author of “Fire Lookouts of the Northwest” and founder of the Fire Lookout Museum in Spokane, Washington; Wayne Pease, 54-year fire lookout veteran currently at the Mt. Hough Lookout; Keith Argow, chairman of the FFLA; and Dan Elliot with the USFS Heritage Program on the Plumas National Forest.
Also attending the conference will be the oldest and the youngest lookout personnel working Plumas lookouts.
Who’s in the lookouts?
Gary Freeland is 82 and began as a fire lookout in 1942 at the Dog Mountain Lookout in Washington State.
He took the job because it was “a perfect summer job” for a college student.
He liked it so much he continued, with a hiatus for military service, through his teaching years as a high school Spanish instructor and more recently, returning each year from his gold prospecting adventurers near Perth, Australia, to spend his summer monitoring local forests for fire.
Freeland is currently manning the Mt. Harvey Lookout.
Twenty-four-year old Alicia Hinojosa wanted to work for the Forest Service and was looking at just about any job that would get her started.
When she was offered a fire lookout position, she said she was reluctant, mostly because she didn’t know what the job entailed.
After less than six months on the job she has a different outlook and indicated she truly enjoys the work she’s doing.
She spends part of her time at the Antelope Peak Lookout and also serves as a replacement for Freeland on his days off.
Antelope Peak was first used as a lookout in the early 1900s and the CCC constructed a two-story structure in 1933.
The current tower, which has a unique design, was designed and built in 1975 as a joint project between NASA, the Department of Energy and the USFS.
It has the distinction of being the first lookout in the U.S. to be fully equipped with solar power.
Freeland mentioned that Hinojosa is very conscientious and is learning the ropes very quickly.
Hinojosa said she is really looking for a full time position and would like to move to a fire crew, but believes this experience has been great.
The FFLA has a membership that is composed of lookout enthusiasts, hikers, conservationists, forest fire personnel, foresters, writers and historians from across the U.S. and Canada.
They invite anyone with an interest in forest history or lookouts to come visit the conference and enjoy the activities.
There will also be drawings and silent auctions of forest and lookout related relics.