The old days of fire lookout towers perched at the top of mountain ranges is long gone due to budget cuts in the U.S. Forest Service.
But residents who help prevent forest fires and spot burns before they spread could help save lives, homes and hundreds of thousands of acres from destruction, according to local authorities.
“Historically, there used to be fire lookouts, but now folks in the public often see fires first,” said Ron Alsop, San Luis Obispo County Emergency Services Manager.
Vehicle chains dragging on roadways, cigarette butts that weren’t put out, abandoned campfires and engine exhaust all are potential causes of wildfires, he said.
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Historically, there used to be fire lookouts, but now folks in the public often see fires first.
Ron Alsop, San Luis Obispo County emergency services manager
Though U.S. Forest Service and fire officials patrol areas where fires might occur, particularly after dry lightning strikes, using aircraft as well as ground responders, resources are limited and members of the public often are in the best position to spot one.
“If we’re experiencing conditions where the weather warrants it, we patrol target areas,” Cal Fire spokesman Clint Bullard said. “But we also rely on the public. A vast majority of calls come in from public being vigilant.”
Cal Fire also has a volunteer program to help prevent fires through education and agency assistance.
The Los Padres Forest Association is another way people can help. It’s a nonprofit group with up to 200 volunteers that organizes hikes, clears trails, educates the public on safety and puts out campfires in forest districts covering San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties.
“We do look for fires, of course, and if we see something that’s unusual, we go in to the investigate,” said Jasonn Beckstrand, the association’s president.
Beckstrand said that often entails dousing and securing a campsite fire that isn’t fully extinguished.
We do look for fires, of course, and if we see something that’s unusual, we go in to the investigate.
The organization’s director, Bryan Conant, said an important part of the job is educating people about rules and best camping practices, cutting away brush from campsites and issuing campfire permits.
“A lot of what we do is education for boy scouts and kids, and one of the things we talk about is not having giant campfires,” Conant said. “A lot of people associate backpacking and camping with having a campfire. But you get the same effect with a flashlight or lamp where people can have that central glow that people gather around.”
Conant said that old fire lookout towers are now sometimes equipped with webcams, including one in the Cuyama Valley that recently was used to spot a fire.
Helen Tarbet, a Los Padres National Forest Service spokeswoman, said that forest officials do patrol areas throughout the district that include the east and west side of the Cuesta Grade.
“Anytime we see a smoke column that’s unusual, we call initiate dispatch and check it out,” Tarbet said. “That can involve an air flyover or hiking out to it. We have towers, and there used to be people who were lookouts as part of their job. But I’ve been here for 20 years, and those jobs have been gone since I’ve been here.”