MOUNTAIN AREA – 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.
In the relative safety of winter, recruitment begins for a new crop of Forest Service volunteers who will be trained as lookouts, before the start of the 2015 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).
YHSFFLA was founded in 2011 as a local chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, for those interested in the understanding of fire lookouts. The Association provides lookout staff training, fire prevention, local and major fires information, updates, and related activities. YHSFFLA also conducts research on current and former forest fire lookout sites, ground cabins and early forest fire detection methods.
Miami Lookout is located off Highway 49 north of Nipinnawasee on Miami Mountain, at an elevation of 4,327 feet. The view overlooks Eastern Madera County, Mariposa County, the south-western peaks of Yosemite National Park and the north-western peaks of the Sierra National Forest. Miami Lookout is responsible for watching an area of approximately 150 square miles and has been staffed by local volunteers since cutbacks forced the discontinuance of paid staffing in 1995.
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.
According to longtime lookout and YHS-FFLA vice president Barbara Thormann, anyone interested in the position will need to appreciate the solitude that comes with the lookout job.
“Being alone is something you should enjoy, because you have a lot of alone time,” explains Thormann. “You need to be able to concentrate on the signs that show you something needs to be called in to dispatch, and you need to know your smokes to make the call.”
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.”
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.
“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,” Thormann says.
“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.
“You have public visitors, people who ride bikes or hike in. You’re in charge of the tower, the captain of the ship. Visitors ask permission to come aboard and you explain how the firefinder works, show them landmarks like Vons, Erna’s, or the Golf Course. They can come up if you say yes, but your attention can not come off of the forest.”
A handful of last year’s area fires were called in by Miami lookout, according to Thormann, including the Junction, French and Courtney fires. While the job may be tough at times, there’s no doubt it’s rewarding.
“I look forward to it so much, being up away from the city and the noise and activity, having peace and quiet and being able to see and feel the serenity of the forest and the beauty we have in the Sierra. Getting to know the people in the firest service who are wonderful and the other lookouts. You share tension, anxiety, excitement, and the job well done feeling. It’s the highlight of my summer.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for a lookout position is encouraged to send an email to email@example.com for more information. Volunteer Coordinator Jeff May requests that potential volunteers include full name, phone number and email address.