By Erin Coller
In San Diego County’s sprawling backcountry, a network of volunteers sit high atop two previously abandoned fire lookout towers throughout fire season, at times around the clock, quietly watching and doing their part to prevent destructive forest fires by detecting them in their early stages. The Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA) is a nationwide, nonprofit organization of volunteers who love San Diego’s backcountry and fire lookout towers, and who work to preserve their history.
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Anyone who is interested in fire lookout towers can get further involved with the Forest Fire Lookout Association. The public is welcome to visit one of the organization’s lookout towers to enjoy the views, learn about the tower’s history, and talk to the volunteer lookouts. For more information, visit ffla-sandiego.org.
Approximately 90 unpaid FFLA San Diego-Riverside Chapter volunteers partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to operate two fire lookout towers on Palomar Mountain every day during the fire season.
The FFLA has restored, and now operates, two towers on Palomar Mountain: High Point Lookout and Boucher Hill Lookout. For decades, High Point tower was run by the U.S. Forest Service and Boucher Hill tower was run by the California Division of Forestry (now known as CAL FIRE), but due to budget constraints and issues with smog in the 1970s and 1980s, the towers were eventually abandoned and later refurbished and staffed by volunteers by the FFLA.
The 65-foot-tall High Point Lookout on the northeast summit of Palomar Mountain is the highest lookout tower in California. It is operated in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and to access it, a high-clearance vehicle is required to cross the surrounding terrain. This tower offers visibility over a large portion of the Cleveland National Forest from the mountains of San Bernardino in the north to the Lagunas in the south. This tower was built in 1964, and was refurbished and brought into service by the FFLA in 2009.
Boucher Hill Lookout is in Palomar Mountain State Park on the west side of the mountain. Built in 1946, it was retired by the California Division of Forestry and deeded to the Department of Parks and Recreation as a historical landmark. FFLA volunteers perform two missions when they work at Boucher Hill – as fire lookouts, and as docents to give tours and to interpret the tower’s history for park visitors. Access to Boucher Hill is by paved roads and does not require high clearance vehicles. Because of the easy access, this tower receives more than 11,000 visitors per year.
In May 2014, San Diego County was hit by a surprise fast-moving swarm of wildfires, and the FFLA volunteers in the Boucher Hill Lookout tower were the first to see it sprout and help alert authorities, who responded rapidly.
The FFLA is completely funded by donations and small grants. The FFLA needs funds for supplies, equipment, repairs, and improvements. According to Scott McClintock, chairman of the FFLA San Diego-Riverside chapter, the San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) SAFE San Diego Giving Initiative provides funding that helps to keep Palomar Mountain’s two fire lookout towers operating and providing their unique level of public safety. Through the SAFE San Diego Giving Initiative, SDG&E supported over 80 additional programs and projects in 2017, which encourage safety and emergency preparedness at home, at local businesses, and in local neighborhoods.
“The Forest Fire Lookout Association runs a successful operation each year and through every fire season thanks to our meaningful partnerships with community-focused organizations like SDG&E,” said McClintock. “We also enjoy our partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to run High Point tower, and our partnership with the California Department of Parks and Recreation in operating Boucher Hill tower.”
According to McClintock, FFLA volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions, but all share a common love for San Diego’s backcountry. Nearly 20 percent of the volunteers are retired professionals from law enforcement and firefighting backgrounds, bringing with them valuable skills in operating advanced radio equipment.
Volunteer training begins each year in April, and includes two eight-hour training sessions, plus a radio procedures workshop. The trainees then work three shifts with an experienced trainer in each tower before they are certified. FFLA volunteers staff both towers virtually every day of the fire season from May through November. Each member is required to work at least six eight-hour shifts per season. Shifts are normally from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and are extended to 8 p.m. during high fire danger weather conditions, with the option for volunteers to stay in the towers overnight.
Once certified, the 90 volunteer lookouts have the opportunity to enjoy spending a day in the backcountry and getting some of the best views in the county, all while serving as an important part of the region’s wildfire response.