By Karen Brainard
Forest fire lookout towers, used throughout the country from the early 1900s to around 1980, are coming back to life, and one Ramona man is ready to stand watch like he did over 65 years ago.
Don Russell was one of many celebrating the re-opening of the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower on Palomar Mountain this month. The tower had been abandoned in 1983 and was refurbished after years of neglect through a collaboration of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA), Palomar State Park, and Cleveland National Forest. The tower sits at an elevation of 5,438 feet within the state park.
The 88-year-old Russell recently joined the San Diego-Riverside Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and plans to work as a volunteer at Boucher Hill.
As he stood at the grand re-opening on Sept. 1, Russell said he looked at all the mountains where he had fought fires in his younger years.
“It did bring back an awful lot of memories,” he said.
Russell worked as a firefighter, beginning in 1942, for the California Division of Forestry. Although he served in different tower locations, in the summer of 1944 he manned Boucher Hill while working lookout reliefs.
The main purpose of the towers was to spot forest fires, but during World War II they were the logical place to establish an aircraft warning service, Russell said.
“When you heard an airplane, you turned it in—where it was and where it was heading,” he said.
Boucher Hill will once again serve a dual purpose as it will house an interpretive center for the public in addition to providing a place to spot fires.
“We’re going to educate a lot of people to fires, lookouts, how the detection system works,” said Russell.
The tower will have two volunteers working at a time, he added, with one available to meet with visitors.
Bill Bollenbacher, president of the San Diego-Riverside FFLA Chapter, is happy to have Russell on board.
“We’re lucky to have one volunteer in our group who manned it,” said Bollenbacher.
Included in the museum will be old photographs and daily logs, noted the chapter president. A trail in the park leads hikers to the tower.
“The plan is to really make it a jewel in the crown of the state park,” Bollenbacher said.
The tower is owned by Palomar State Park. Bollenbacher said Nedra Martinez, superintendent of the park, was instrumental in returning the tower to service.
The current Boucher Hill Tower was built in 1948. It was the third tower at that site. The first was built in the early 1920s and replaced by an enclosed tower in 1934.
At one time there were 8,000 lookout towers across the U.S., according to the FFLA. Of the 625 that were in California, 198 are still standing. Smog and technological advances contributed to the closure of many towers. Now, with less smog and with firefighting resources strapped, using the towers again enables firefighters to be more efficient, Bollenbacher said. The towers are manned by volunteers.
The High Point Tower on Palomar Mountain was renovated and re-opened in 2009 and is a more critical lookout spot than Boucher Hill, said Bollenbacher.
According to FFLA member Curt Waite, this summer volunteers at High Point reported four small fires caused by lightning strikes, and fire personnel were able to extinguish them right away. More volunteers are needed for the lookout towers. Volunteers will go through training and do not need to be former firefighters.
Anyone interested may email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the lookout tower association, visit socalfirelookouts.org.