SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST — From atop the mountain perch overlooking a vast expanse of green, eyes are carefully trained to spot the early tell-tale signs of forest fire. A wisp of smoke triggers a series of actions that can mean the difference between safety and catastrophe.
Want to be a fire lookout or know someone who does? Volunteers are now being recruited for the season to serve as fire lookouts on Miami Mountain, Signal Peak and Shuteye Peak. This is a great way to get on-the-job training and experience.
Miami Mountain is a lookout tower located at about 4,327 feet elevation, northwest of Nippinawasee and is 100 percent staffed throughout the fire season by Forest Service Volunteers. At Signal Peak and Shuteye Peak, 7,079 and 8,300 feet elevation on the Sierra National Forest respectively, trained volunteers are permitted to relieve paid staff.
Now, in the relative safety of spring, recruitment begins for a new crop of Forest Service volunteers who will be trained before the start of the 2019 fire season. The USFS Miami Mountain Volunteer Fire Lookout station usually opens Memorial Day weekend, and the hunt for fresh volunteers to staff the lookout has already started, say members of the Yosemite-High Sierra Forest Fire Lookout Association (YHSFFLA).
“We need people who are pretty self sufficient and enjoy being alone with themselves,” says longtime lookout and YHS-FFLA vice president Barbara Thormann. “It’s eight hours all by themselves in a high spot in the forest. It’s critical that you’re alert and paying attention to the forest, and it’s important that people understand how important the position is.”
Thormann says that volunteers have a lot of population below them and the responsibility is a serious one.
“Knowing topography and attention to detail are key. Once you find a fire — you’ve got to know what it is; it’s geography. These days, after so many fires, people are aware of how important sitting in the middle of what some would say ‘nowhere’ is. I hope we can get more folks to volunteer.”
The 20-ft. steel tower that comprises Miami Mountain Lookout was originally constructed in 1934 as a 14 x 14′ wood lookout house, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Miami is staffed during fire season from about mid-May of each year through October or November, when sufficient precipitation has occurred to officially declare the end of fire season.
The tower is a huge asset to our mountain community because it is situated in a prime location and directly overlooks the communities of Nipinnawasee, Ahwahnee, Bailey Flats, Raymond, Coarsegold and Oakhurst in Madera County; and Ponderosa Basin, Usona, Bootjack, Lush Meadows, Mariposa, and Oakgrove in Mariposa County.Fire Lookouts are responsible for keeping an eye out for smoke across the surrounding areas and contacting Sierra National Forest Dispatch Center and/or the California Department of Forestry (Cal Fire) Madera, Mariposa, Merced Unit (MMU) to inform them of a possible vegetation or structure fire.
Thormann says volunteers are taught to determine the difference between smoke from a sanctioned fire, for instance, versus dust or just exhaust from a car in trouble.
“When you see suspicious activity, you don’t have a lot of time to make the judgement that activates dispatch to call out resources like fire engines, smoke jumpers, and airplane with fire retardant, based on where you’ve seen smoke and what kind of smoke it is. When you’re on patrol inside the lookout station, you’re walking around with binoculars every five minutes, and when something pops up you need to be on it.
“If you’re lucky it will be boring. You need endurance to walk around the tower and to be comfortable with nothingness while being observant. The endurance of the aloneness is another way of looking at it.”
If it seems as though the responsibility is overwhelming, fear not, as trained volunteers work with a team of pros who are in nearly constant contact via radio.
“When you’re at Miami you have the comfort of knowing there are lookouts at Shuteye and Signal. The three of you are on the same dispatch, so you have help for confirmation, and assistance to give you reassurance because you share information and there are other people listening and helping. Cell service is available and radio contact is frequent but you must pay attention, you cannot be socializing or playing games online.”
Trained volunteers may leave the station at the end of their shift, or can spend the night. At that point, the lookout can read or be online. Lookouts may also have the opportunity to interface with the public.
Applicants will be required to drive their own vehicle, have the ability to climb up and down from the lookout tower, and be able to tolerate the altitude well, along with the recurring theme of solitude.
No experience is necessary and training will be provided. Each individual (including those under 18 years of age) must be a U.S. citizen or national and submit new volunteer paperwork every year with the U.S. Forest Service. Those under 18 years of age must also be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian at all times.
There will be a meeting on Saturday, May 18 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bass Lake Ranger District Office at 57003 Road 225 in North Fork, and will include all returning volunteers and any new recruits. Volunteers can sign up to staff the tower and learn more about the duties of a fire lookout.
For anyone interested in volunteering to staff Miami Lookout, but who is not able to attend the meeting is asked to please email firstname.lastname@example.org to get further information.
Below is a map of the location of the Bass Lake Ranger District Office in North Fork.