History of Fire Detection in California North Mountain Lookout - Fire Watchtower, Groveland California

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The following is from the document "FIXED-POINT FIRE DETECTION IN THE USDA FOREST SERVICE, REGION 5" August 1987

In its broadest sense fire detection refers to any effort to spot fires before they cause unwanted damage to life or property. Fire detection focuses on two major areas: protection of property and improvements, and protection of natural resources. The protection of property and people against destructive fires has been, practiced for hundreds of years, if not since the beginning of civilization. Since then, various people have exploited the possibilities of fire and biological adaptations to it for their own purpose.

In its early form detection might have been as casual as staying alert while tending the fields, or as formal as posting sentries on city or fort walls, "In practice, though, individuals were rarely enlisted solely to lookout for fires. During the Middle Ages, European peasants fought wildfires with brooms, robes, fire lines, and backfires. The chief goal was to prevent loss of life and property, but the threat of fire was usually an internal problem, rather than the result of a wildland fire. Fires were rarely controlled unless they threatened farms, fields, or villages, and if large, such fires quickly exceeded any efforts at control.

The detection and control of fires in remote wildlands posed an entirely different problem. Detection and control of these kinds of fires only developed after people: 1) overcame the perception that wildfire was unavoidable and uncontrollable, 2) took responsibility for fires regardless of location, 3) came to view wildland fires as desirable to regulate regardless of cause, and 4) had the means to control such fires.

In the United States, even though early pioneers adapted Indian burning practices, a combination of logging, land-clearing, and frontier attitudes about fire was in part responsible for holocaust fires, such as the Miramiche of 1825 and the great Idaho fire of 1910.

Nevertheless, it was in the United States, that the detection and control of wildfires began in earnest. Fire management found its beginnings in the creation of the National Park System and expanded during the 1880's through efforts at the Adirondack Forest Preserve in New York.

In California the need for fire detection increased after the discovery of gold in 1848, and continued to increased as people settled throughout the state. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the attitude among most settlers was that wildland fire protection was unnecessary, impossible to undertake, and counterproductive. Although, a few volunteer fire brigades were organized to protect towns and property.

Railroad owners were among the first advocates of wildland fire control because wildland fires damaged trackage. This concern increased after the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860's. Many railroad companies had their own cars designed to carry water hoses and pumps to extinguish fires before they damaged the line. Yet, both in California and throughout the nation, carelessness continued to lead to devastating fires causing monumental damage and sometimes tragic loss of life.

Conservationist groups were also concerned with combating destructive fires. They lobbied state and federal governments for aid in protecting watersheds and wildlife from fire. Concentrating on issues of flood damage and soil erosion, they helped convince state and local governments to establish fire protection associations, and the federal government to develop plans for fire control. Private timber owners were first to favor fire protection associations.

Federal involvement in fire control began with the Park Service and was later introduced into the Forest Reserves. In 1891 Congress created the Reserves and authorized the President to withdraw from entry forest lands deemed to be of national importance. In 1885 California created a Board of Forestry to deal with timber abuses, but the board was abandoned eight years later for lack of support. The need for fire detection and prevention increased as more land was set aside by the Federal Government and as destructive fires increased, particularly in the drought-prone, sprawling suburban areas of southern California.

With the creation of the Reserves, millions of acres of forested land were set aside from the public domain, yet at the time, management of these lands was unclear. New issues, priorities, and legislation brought about changes in fire policy, which were put into practice on the Forests. Among a ranger's primary duties were to prevent and control fires, and to prevent trespass. Because forest boundaries were unclear trespass occurred frequently and prosecution was difficult. The detection of fires generally consisted of an individual reporting smoke to a ranger station or fire guard.

During the early 1900's the General Land Office carried out extensive surveys to properly monument forest boundaries. Mapping was done on each Forest, and it was probably during this time that specific mountain tops were considered for detection spots.

In 1905 the Forest Reserves were shifted from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture and two years later they were renamed National Forests. The change, although actuated on paper, only modestly affected the duties of the early-day forest personnel. Forests were still understaffed, poorly managed, and meagerly funded.

The greatest single motivator within the Forest Service was its Chief, Gifford Pinchot. Part of Pinchot's plan was to convince the public that the Forest Service mission included fire detection and prevention. Pinchot and many of his followers believed that wildland fires had to be prevented. Pinchot's vision would shape the future Forest Service, but a lack of funding restricted the development of fire management policy until the second and third decade of the twentieth century.

Fire detection and control are aspects of the larger question of fire practices, the ways in which natural- and human-caused fires are used or withheld. A prescribed burn to one culture may be wildfire to another. In 1909 the Forest Service began experiments on light burning as a means to prevent wildfires. These experiments were controversial and, within the Forest Service, the issue of light burning created a rift between advocates of the practice and those who opposed it. A state commission helped resolve the issue in the 1920's, declaring the practice to be counterproductive to current fire policy.

In 1910 Chief Forester Henry S. Graves declared fire control to be 90 percent of forestry. Yet, counter to traditional frontier and agricultural fire practices, which relied on light burning, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service embarked on a program of systematic fire protection.

During the 1910'3 and 1920's, fire research concentrated on investigating fire as an economic question and as a technical problem. Dissatisfaction with the lack of a fire control organization, and public pressure resulting from several seasons of holocaust fires in the West, impelled California District Forester, Coert DuBois, to develop a fire plan using the Stanislaus National Forest as a model. In 1911 the plan was circulated throughout California's National Forests. Of primary importance to the plan was the designation of key mountain tops as permanent lookout points. The "primary" lookout was introduced, along with standard fire statistics. For detection, earlier experiments had relied on a system of patrols, which used portable phones and, later, radios for communication.

In 1914 DuBois presented a more extensive and refined treatise on the general subject of fire control. Entitled "Systematic Fire Protection in the California Forests", this manual laid the groundwork for fire control in California. In a section devoted to fire protection, DuBois presented a standardized plan for a 12' x 12' wood, live-in cab. He also endorsed the Aermotor Company's design of steel observation towers. In 1917 DuBois presented Plan Number 4-A, which called for a 14' x 14' primary lookout building. This plan, which became the standard for lookout cabs in Region 5, replaced the 12' x 12' cab. By the late 1920's, the majority of lookouts were designed with 14' x 14' cabs placed on the ground, or with towers of varying heights. DuBois' expansion of the cab provided more space for lookouts personnel who had suffered through previous fire seasons in cramped quarters.

In 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Law which authorized funds for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams. The Act also provided money for research into fire-damaged watersheds, including fire control research. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 supplemented the Weeks Law and expanded federal assistance to state forestry programs. In 1927 with the creation of a Department of Natural Resources with a Division of Forestry, State-run wildland fire protection was initiated, and lookout construction began on state-owned or leased land.

The teens and early twenties not only saw the growth of forestry divisions within state and federal governments, but also research of fire prevention methods, including the controversial light burning. Mapping of the state's vegetation zones, compiling of fire statistics, and use of aerial photography expanded during the 1920's. In 1921 federal and state fire officials met at Mather Air Force base in Sacramento to discuss fire policy. During the late 1920's, the Shasta Experimental Fire Forest was established as an administrative model of systematic fire control.

District Forester Stuart B. Show was a staunch proponent of a statewide detection system. Around 1930 Show formed a task force to investigate all aspects of fire detection. The group was headed by Edward I. Kotok, Director of the California Forest and Range Experiment Station. The task force continued to meet during the early 1930's, and in early 1933 with the assistance of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laborers, began construction of a new series of fire lookouts and replacement of many outdated ones.

During the late 1920's and into the 1930's, the Region continued visibility mapping of the areas seen from existing and proposed lookout stations. These maps were compared with fire occurrence zone maps to determine the effectiveness of a particular lookout point. From the study it was determined that the outside limit for the detection of smoke was 15 miles. Within this radius, fires must be discovered within 15 minutes of their start, to guarantee a reasonable chance of confining them to a small area.

After the mapping was completed, detection planning conferences were held on each Forest, the first in 1933. The visibility studies and detection conferences resulted in a list of lookout points rated by their coverage area, and plans for the construction of lookouts at the points with the highest rating. Many peaks already had towers, but the tower designs of the older lookouts were considered obsolete.

By 1934 new fire lookout construction was in full swing. That year Assistant Regional Forester, J. H. Price reported that, "...any tower over 30' in height comes furnished with an observatory. Where such a tower is used, a building must be furnished for living quarters. If there is any visibility from the ground, a type "C" building can be used for the living quarters. There are few places where higher towers are needed and where we would be justified in also having a standard lookout house." (personal communication by J. H. Price to Forest Supervisor, Eldorado, S. F., CA, Feb. 26, 1934). Between 1933 and 1938, over 200 new Forest Service lookouts were built in California. Well over half of those lookouts used 30' towers or less with standard 14' x 14' cabs. On some Forests, the new towers almost entirely replaced older lookouts. Therefore, over two-thirds of all the towers existing in Region 5 today were built between these years.

The 1930's tested the financial and physical strength of the units towards which systematic fire control could be pushed. With the help of emergency work programs and the new technology of pre-fabricated construction, lookouts could be erected in a matter of days. Using CCC crews and local experienced men as laborers with Forest officers to oversee the work, the Forest Service embarked on an ambitious program of lookout construction. The designs for the towers and cabs were standard, but local situations sometimes dictated the use of varying materials or alteration of designs. Thus, towers of the same height might be constructed of wood or steel, or be battered or non-battered. In general, the view area dictated the height of the tower.

The CCC and other emergency relief programs of the 1930's not only benefited the Forest Service, but also boosted other fire detection programs in the State. The California Division of Forestry actively began hiring seasonal employees to operate the new lookouts, which numbered over 51 by the end of the 1930's.

As the threat of another world war loomed larger, the military application of California's lookouts became more apparent. The passage of the National Defense Act in 1920 provided the basis for reorganizing the Army command system. An offshoot of this was the creation of the General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force in 1935. The GHQ is credited with establishing the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS). Beginning in 1937 California's lookout operators were trained and tested to spot aircraft. Also referred to as the Aircraft Warning System, this pilot program spread along the entire West Coast, and by 1941 included portions of the entire nation.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the AWS was fully activated and observers were rushed to their respective stations. Plans called for the winterizing of all lookouts and the erection of numerous temporary cabins. The AWS called for spotters every twelve miles or less. Two observers were required at each lookout point for twenty-four hour coverage. Telephone lines were kept in good repair, and, during the winter months, supplies had to be flown in or carried in on skis or a snow cat. A 1944 circular remarked that, "...the efficiency of a forest-fire lookout man depends mainly on four qualifications: 1) experience, 2) knowledge of the territory, 3) alertness, and 4) the quality of his eyesight".

The AWS continued for the duration of the War, but towards the end many AWS stations had closed. In 1951 the Governors of California, Oregon, and Washington called for the re-establishment of a "Ground Observer Corps", apparently over concern about the emerging Korean conflict. This program, not nearly on the scale of the 1940's, ended about 1957.

The 1940's ushered in a new, more expanded system of fire detection and control. During the War, fire control agencies experimented with aerial detection. Experiments were carried out on the Chelan National Forest in Washington during 1945. Using airplanes as the principal means to detect fires, pilots demonstrated that airplanes were an economical and effective means of spotting wildfires. Yet, fire officials continued to rely on the proven, well-tested detection from fixed point lookouts.

During the war, new lookout construction nearly came to a halt, but in 1945 the Forest Service designed an "experimental lookout" for La Cumbre Peak on the Los Padres National Forest. The lookout was innovative, with its steel frame cab, columns, roof beams, ties, and girders. The project was funded by the the Forest Service Washington Office and Region 5. Compared to other lookouts, La Cumbre was somewhat expensive, costing over $6,500. With lean budgets after the War, and the loss of the CCC, funding for similar projects was rare.

For most Americans the 1950's was an era of prosperity, characterized by increased building and advancements in technology. Throughout California suburbs sprawled outward covering acres of previously unoccupied land, bordering many of the National Forests. To deal with the increasing threat to property from wildfire, the California Department of Forestry (CDF), in cooperation with the Forest Service, advanced fire control by establishing an integrated fire management organization. In response to new technology and building design, CDF began a concerted effort to replace or modify many of their older towers. A similar program was begun within the Forest Service, but not on the as large a scale as CDF.

During the 1950's the Forest Service was not only faced with an increased danger to property and lives, but also with the usefulness of its fire lookouts. In southern California the smog problem coincided with the height of the fire season, resulting in poor visibility for lookout operators. As a result a number of lookouts were eliminated from the system. Yet, Forest Service studies on the efficient use of lookouts continued. In the 1950's the Forest Service introduced yet another new design, the 13' x 13', all-metal, live-in cab with a flat roof.

Earlier experiments using aircraft to observe and extinguish fires were continued during the 1950's. Between 1955 and 1960, Region 5 undertook the Increased Manning Experiment. Despite a significant decrease in suppression costs and burned acreage, the study at first failed to convince fire control officials that lookouts were not needed. But, eventually, many lookouts were deactivated, and destroyed or removed. The primary reasons for this have been: 1) an increase in the number of fires reported by forest users, 2) the effectiveness of air patrols in detecting fires, 3) more and better roads, 4) the introduction of radio repeaters and improved communications equipment, 5) increased smog in metropolitan areas, 6) higher costs in lookout maintenance and operation, and 7) fixed point automation with sophisticated electronic equipment, such as satellites and ground optics. Once over 600 lookout sites existed in California, but today that number has shrunk to less than 290. Approximately 107 of those sites are still in active use. Today, the future of fixed point detection is uncertain, as is the fate of the fire lookout.