‘Constant vigil.’ Los Padres forest lookouts watched out for wildfires in 1950s

In the era before smartphones and thermal satellite imagery, a fire lookout was the foremost wildfire warning system.

Perched in towers on the highest peaks of Los Padres Nation Forest, lookouts enjoyed an eagle’s eye view of the trees — as well as suspicious wisps of smoke.

From there, they could alert rangers via radio and telephone to any potential blazes needing to be battled.

According to a 1954 Telegram-Tribune story, about 170,000 acres burned in Southern California in 1953.

Since 2003, the largest 10 individual fires in California history have ranged in size from 271,910 acres burned to more than 1 million acres.

Nine of the top 10 fires took place in 2018 or later.

Although San Luis Obispo County’s fire towers have been dismantled or converted to other uses such as condor observation, the amount of funding and staffing dedicated to firefighting has grown considerably as wildfire season stretches longer.

Paul Nelson wrote this story for the Telegram-Tribune, published on June 5, 1954.

Lookouts Take Up Vigil Over Forests

With forest service employees and the public alerted to the dangers of the “fire season” that began this week, the San Luis district of the Los Padres National Forest is prepared wit a full complement of men and equipment.

District ranger William Dresser has established lookouts on Black Mountain and Hi Mountain. Two others on Cerro Alto and Branch mountain, will be manned next week.

Personnel for the fire stations that are scattered throughout the district will be expanded gradually as conditions became more critical, Dresser said. The main stations are at Pozo, Cerro Alto creek, Avanales, Queen Bee and Lopez Canyon. Additional stations will be established as the need arises.

Control Center

Fire control headquarters for this district is at Pozo. Dresser’s fire control assistant, Carl Hickerson, is stationed there. Since that station is the nerve center of the district’s radio network, Hickerson is able to direct the movements of personnel in all parts of the San Luis district.

The district headquarters is at 777 1/2 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo. From here Dresser keeps in touch with the Pozo station and other points in the district both by phone and radio.

The district has acquired a more efficient radio system this year through inauguration of the Mt. Lowe transmitter station as a relay point. By turning a dial on the radio set of his pickup, Dresser can reach any of his own personnel and also the forest headquarters in Santa Barbara.

The fire control assistant for the entire forest, Nolan O’Neal, is a former San Luis Obispo district ranger.

Constant Vigil

Constant surveillance of the entire forest is maintained by the lookouts who are perched on the highest peaks. These people, who live and work on and an around-the-clock basis in a single large room, have an eagle’s eye view of the forest and a highly developed system for pin-pointing the location of any fire that they see.

The Black Mountain lookout station, which is shown in the accompanying (1954 story) pictures, is a good case in point.

In the center of the room is the station’s “fire finder.” This is a movable sighting device that rotates around a circular map. When the lookout sees smoke, he sights it through the peep hole of the device to get the direction. He then takes a reading for vertical angle, that is used at fire control headquarters to get the elevation.

The view of Lopez Lake from the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Aug. 4, 2010.
The view of Lopez Lake from the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Aug. 4, 2010.

Exact location of a fire is extremely important because a few seconds’ delay by the fire crews, as they race to the scene, can make the difference between immediate control and the lack of it.

The lookouts are in touch with fire control headquarters by telephone and radio. They are also able to communicate with each other, for checking their instruments and for comparing data on territory that can be viewed mutually.

Each lookout has a list of “permanent smokes” in the area. These include homes, factories, garbage dumps, etc. The lookouts are alerted to particular high hazard areas, such as power lines, camp grounds and highways.

The importance of fire control is graphically shown by the recent results of the huge fires that swept over about 170,000 acres of southern California mountain watershed last year.

One of the burned areas happened to lie in an experimental forest and officials were able to get accurate data on the difference that the fire made. For example, in one canyon, where cover in about one-third of the watershed and been destroyed by fire, the first large storm this January produced a debris-laden flow 68 times as great as normal.

Siltation of reservoirs, such as the Salinas Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County, is materially increased by fires, data has shown. The Black Mountain fire also created heavy erosion of roads and filled stream beds with silt and debris.

Anthony Prieto paints a life size condor mural on the side of the former fire lookout on Hi Mountain. Shadows from the walkway above cast a pattern on the wall Oct. 6, 2002.
Anthony Prieto paints a life size condor mural on the side of the former fire lookout on Hi Mountain. Shadows from the walkway above cast a pattern on the wall Oct. 6, 2002.