July is the beginning of fire season in Big Pine National Forest. The fire towers and especially the tower rangers are critically important to spotting and controlling fires in Big Pine. Ranger Bill keeps in close contact with all of his fire towers every day. You may not know that there are also fire lookout cabins. These cabins are built on top of several of the higher mountain tops and have even better views of the national forest.
Fire lookouts begin their day at 5:30 am. The four walls of their fire towers or cabins are surrounded by windows to give an unobstructed view of the forest. Tower lookouts must go for their daily water from a local stream. Lookouts in mountain cabins must gather and boil snow for drinking water. Cabins and towers are swept and picked up every morning just in case visitors stop by.
This time of year the days are hot and the forest is dry. The lookout must spend 20 minutes out of each and every hour scanning the forest for any telltale signs of fire. Lookouts must pay special attention to anything that might look like smoke.
Rain usually means thunderstorms and lightening. Lookouts each have special lightening stools with glass feet. The lookout must stand on the stool in the middle of the room during a storm to protect from electrocution. Then there is the Osborne Fire finder, a circular topo map with two rotating sights. This is used to locate a fire within 160-acre grid quadrants. The static in the air will make a ranger's skin tingle and make his hair stand up. He or she may see St. Elmo's Fire may roll down tree branches. Rangers may see multiple fires come to life in just a matter of minutes.
Boredom is a problem these rangers and volunteers must deal with all summer long. The isolation can become a major problem for some. Others, such as writers, find the isolation the perfect outlet for their creative side. Mammoth mountains with ominous names, like Desolation Mountain or Terror or Fury, derived from stories from fur traders and Indians add to the stress many rangers feel at times.
If you ever get a chance to meet a fire lookout, whether full-time ranger or summer volunteer, please tell him thanks from all of us for caring for our safety and for the forest.