Inland Empire volunteer lookouts play key role preventing fires in local mountains

Keller Peak in the San Bernardino National Forest sits at 7,882 feet above sea level. Not only is it home to radio and transmission equipment, but the oldest lookout tower in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Many of the 300 volunteers who staff the towers are the people who first see the smoke from growing fires, sometimes with their bare eyes. They say getting eyes on a fire quickly is critical to stopping fires before they spread out of control.

"Yes, it is old school," said Pam Morey, the coordinator for the San Bernardino National Forest's fire lookout host program. "But it works."

Morey said despite all the technology of the 21st century, it's often a simple pair of binoculars that helps volunteers spot fires.

"With satellites, you have to have a raging fire to pick it up," Morey said. "And with cellphones, not everywhere in the forest can someone call it in. We don't have the reception.

"So we're here on the peak and we can spot it when it's small."

There are seven lookout towers in the San Bernardino National Forest. The towers are manned starting the first week of May, through sometime around Thanksgiving. Not only do volunteers look for fires, but also check on surrounding campsites.

"It makes things dangerous when people are doing things in the forest that they shouldn't be doing," said volunteer Duane Bidwell, who routinely checks on campsites on his way up to the Keller Peak tower.

The program also allows visitors to tour the lookout towers. There are often several thousand a year. The program was halted during the pandemic, but resumed operations on June 17.

"Living up here my whole life, we've had quite a few fires," said visitor Wyatt McGilvery, a mountain resident who was biking in the area of Keller Peak. "We need these guys to catch them as soon as they can."

Morey said it's impossible to tell how many devastating fires volunteers have prevented because of their diligent, and often tedious work.

"We feel like we're giving back to the forest and the communities," she said. "We're saving the communities if we can get the fire when it's small."

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