On top of Miami Mountain, between the Madera and Mariposa county line north of Ahwahnee, a lookout tower has sat for more than 80 years with eyes often hunting the forest for signs of danger.
At 4,327 feet elevation, trained volunteers regularly walk the tower’s perimeter, continually scanning the surroundings for smoke, dust, or any other element that indicates the possibility of one of the forest community’s most dangerous enemies - wildfire.
“Early detection is the key,” said Don Cohn, a 12-year volunteer at Miami Mountain Lookout. “With early detection of a wildfire, being able to allocate resources quicker saves life and property. The earlier you get it, the sooner you get resources on scene, the more chance you have to control it.”
Cohn spent 40 years as a forestry firefighter and retired as a battalion chief 17 years ago.
He said as volunteers perform 360-degree checks a minimum of every 15 minutes at five lookouts in the Sierra National Forest - Miami, Signal, and Shuteye in Eastern Madera County - they vastly increase the chance for early detection. That can help stop the rapid spread of wildfires, particularly in the case of hot temperatures, heavy fuels, or strong winds, Cohn said.
“In rural areas, the lookouts many times see smoke from a fire prior to it being reported by telephone,” Cohn said. “Especially during lightning activity. Many lightning-ignited fires don’t show themselves until after the storm has passed, even up to a few days.”
Additionally, the lookouts can assist firefighters as they handle a blaze, Cohn said by acting as a sort of scout, or, as they’re affectionately referred to, the “Eyes of the Forest.”
“Whenever you’re on a wildfire, there are people attacking it directly, there are people commanding the incident, and there’s also a safety group,” Cohn said. “We’re part of that. Because from up here, you can see what a fire’s doing. You can see if it’s making a run, and if it spots ahead of the attack crews. You are watching that fire, all the time, while also keeping an eye on everything else.”
After around a 20-minute drive up a one-lane dirt road, protected by locked gates and surrounded by vegetation, Cohn pointed out the tower’s vast views including sights from the Bass Lake area to Mariposa, and as far south as Raymond.
During the precariously steep climb to the 40-foot-high tower’s peak, the day took a lighthearted tone as Jim Silvester, with wife Kathie on duty that day, opened a sort of trap door that allows volunteers to access its peak.
“You’re in my house now,” Jim laughed.
Despite numerous open windows, with its tin roof, a hot summer day can turn the small room - which has a a bed and cot for overnight stays - into a sweltering shack, with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees, Silvester said.
That can prove exhausting during a routine shift of eight hours or longer, Kathie said, even if no smoke or other signals are caught all day.
“I’ve never been more tired of doing nothing,” she chuckled. “By the end of the day, you’re exhausted, because your focus is always somewhere, and the heat really takes the energy out of you. But once you see smoke, the adrenaline rolls.”
During the tour earlier this month, that adrenaline was shown as Kathie called out to Jim that she saw smoke near the base of Mount Bullion in Mariposa, some 7.5 miles northwest of the tower.
Both Silvesters rushed to the Osborne Fire Finder, a crucial device that sits in the center of the tower, to determine the latitude and longitude coordinates of the smoke or flames.
A type of directional measure comprised of a scope and a directional bearing map, the Silvesters located the smoke and input the coordinates to computing software DragonPlot, a recent addition to the tower.
DragonPlot then provided extensive details, such as the location’s elevation and a three-dimensional model of its nearby surroundings. The duo then used Google Earth on a second computer to provide an overhead view, with all information - including that of other towers for triangulation - relayed to the forest service.
The smoke later appeared to be part of an illegal burn pile in the Mariposa area, but both the Silvesters, and Cohn, said that was simply part of the job.
Despite that rush, they all said they find time for hobbies between their patrols, such as reading - Jim brings a Kindle - or listening to baseball games on the radio.
Cohn said the Miami Mountain Lookout is staffed around 85% to 90% of the time, but more volunteers, who work eight hour shifts during fire season or can stay multiple days, are always welcome.
Mountain Area lookouts
* Miami Mountain Lookout, established in 1934, is located north of Oakhurst, near Nipinnawasee, on the Madera/Mariposa county line. It overlooks Nipinnawasee, Ahwahnee, Bailey Flats, Raymond, Coarsegold, Oakhurst, Ponderosa Basin, Bootjack, and Mariposa.
* Shuteye Lookout, established in 1907, is located 12 air miles north of North Fork, and can only be reached by 4-wheel drive vehicles at an elevation of 8,358 feet. It overlooks Oakhurst, Ahwahnee, North Fork, and Bass Lake.
* Signal Peak Lookout (Devils Peak), established in 1900 and rebuilt in 1951, is located in Mariposa County east of Jerseydale Station at an elevation of 7,079 feet. It overlooks Yosemite National Park, Wawona Basin, and Mariposa.
For more information about fire lookouts throughout the state, click here or visit http://www.fire-lookouts.org/cali/cali.htm.