Nevada County’s fire lookout volunteers provide extra set of eyes for Cal Fire
Special to The Union
Turkey vultures circled above Wolf Mountain Fire Lookout, as Jim Moran peered through his binoculars at the horizon, conducting a “systematic scan” of the 360-degree views before him.
From his three-story, 65-foot-high perch, he can see the Sutter Buttes, Wheatland, Auburn, Old Man Mountain and even Pyramid Peak, 54 miles away.
“I like the view — that’s the best part, of course,” Moran said.
“You’re alone and it’s really quiet. You stand up here in a beautiful location. It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he added.
About six weeks ago, Moran began working as a volunteer coordinator of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Volunteers in the Fire Protection (VIP) program.
Moran, a retired community college administrator, is fascinated by his new role and enjoys giving back to his community during what could be the worst fire season on record.
As many as 150 people initially showed interest in volunteering to staff the three local fire lookouts built in the 1930s and 1940s — Wolf Mountain (near the county transfer station), Banner Mountain and Oregon Peak (near Bullards Bar Reservoir) — during peak fire season for the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit (NEU) of Cal Fire.
About 100 core volunteers have committed to filling two eight-hour shifts daily, staffing the lookouts seven days a week from sunrise to sunset until the rains come this fall.
“I think the whole idea is to increase response time as much as possible. An extra set of eyes can’t hurt anything,” said Moran.
Historically, Cal Fire has had as many as 77 lookouts across the state. Budget cuts and damage caused by vandals closed many lookouts and nearly resulted in their demolition by the state.
Last year, the Watt Park Fire Fighter’s Association secured a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) grant to restore and reopen lookout towers like Wolf Mountain.
“When Banner Mountain and Wolf Mountain are staffed, the ability of the Emergency Command Center to pinpoint a fire’s location is significantly enhanced through triangulation. Each successive cross results in a smaller search area for the fire personnel,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Sean Griffis.
That’s important with drought conditions creating an environment that could be the worst fire season in history, said Griffis. Already this year, local units have run more fires statewide than normal.
The state originally cut funding for staffed lookout positions several years ago when cellphone reports became the norm in places like Southern California. But in the wooded Sierra foothill communities of Nevada, Placer and Yuba counties, cellphone service can be nonexistent in remote backcountry areas, making lookouts a valuable tried-and true-tool to detect fires early.
Another problem with cellphones is that reports come from a caller who isn’t familiar with the area and gives poor direction to emergency personnel, said Griffis.
So far this season, five reports of fires have come in from lookout volunteers and four of those five reports never were reported from a cellphone user. The fires were spotted early, crews were dispatched, and fires were kept to one-acre size or smaller, said Griffis.
“It can really get resources out early compared to cellphone calls. We’ve only been open a month and the lookouts are already showing their worth,” said Griffis.
Apps are available for cellphone users who want latitude and longitude coordinates to expedite reporting a fire.
The three fire lookouts in the area are key components of a whole system that includes the staff at the Emergency Command Center in Grass Valley who get input from the lookouts, 911 calls from citizens, surveillance aircraft, remote cameras, and more.
Photograph printouts of the lookout’s panoramic view are taped under the windows that circle the building and are meant to aide volunteers trying to identify the location of a fire.
Landmarks are noted by degrees and distance in miles away. Moran uses a “fire finder” — a type of alidade or turning board used to find the directional bearing or “azimuth” when spotting a plume of smoke.
Moran gives the wooden platform that the fire finder sits on a rap with his knuckles.
“Knock on wood. I haven’t seen one yet,” he said.
Sometimes there are false alarms, like the dust from a construction site or the black smoke from Union Pacific Railroad. Black smoke signifies a structure fire and white smoke, a wild fire.
The adrenaline starts to flow when a suspected wildfire is spotted. Moran admits that he is still “getting there” and the art of spotting fires is a learning curve for everybody.
“In some respects, we’re still finding our way,” he said.
Volunteer Greg Archbald just finished his first month at Wolf Mountain. He works a couple of shifts, upwards of 14 hours a week. He discovered the great views at Wolf Mountain several years ago and jumped at the chance to be a volunteer at the lookout.
“I’m a geo-nerd and I’m also really concerned about the fire danger to our communities this drought-dry summer. Working at Wolf Mountain lets me enjoy a grand view of the land and also help protect the community. I’m also enjoying meeting a batch of new coworkers,” he said.
During his training, Archbald was introduced to the Emergency Command Center and firefighting resources of the area. He learned to work the radio, thus developing his understanding of emergency communications.
He says in this era of technology, there is still a need for fire lookouts.
“If you had a precious new child or grandchild, would you be happier with a robot as a babysitter or a real live person? There isn’t a technology yet that can come close to the ability of the human eye and brain to search and detect subtle changes in a scene, then to communicate about it clearly,” he said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.
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