MOUNT KONOCTI - On a clear day from atop this ancient volcanic peak, you can see far across Lake County, beyond shimmering Clear Lake in the foreground to summits rising hundreds of miles away on opposite ends of the eastern horizon — 10,463-foot Mount Lassen in the north and 3,848-foot Mount Diablo in the south.
The 45-foot fire lookout perched on 4,299-foot Mount Konocti has been a community cause and labor of love for a small cadre of smoke-spotting volunteers who take their public safety role seriously.
They are responsible for reviving the lookout tower last year, a dozen years after it was shuttered and amid one of the most disastrous fire seasons Lake County has seen in generations. In 2015, the county saw more than 275 square miles scorched in three large wildfires, including the deadly Valley fire, which claimed at least four lives and nearly 1,300 homes.
This time of year the danger persists in Lake County, as evidenced Thursday by a small wildfire that destroyed three Lucerne homes and forced dozens of neighbors to flee before firefighters got the flames under control.
“I feel it’s really important to have someone up there every day,” volunteer Mark Meredith, a former deputy sheriff, said about the Konocti lookout.
The volunteers, with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, are part of a growing, nationwide effort to reopen shuttered fire towers in order to help catch and quell wildfires before they wreak havoc. Most of the structures date from the earliest decades of the Forest Service, which adopted an aggressive approach to putting out all wildfires. That policy has evolved to let some blazes burn, and towers gradually fell into decline with the rise of spotting from planes and satellites or called in by individuals from cellphones.
About 8,000 lookout towers once existed across the country and about 2,000 still stand, many of them out of service. About 500 currently are staffed nationwide by volunteer fire lookouts, including at least 16 in California. Five are operated by either volunteers or forestry staff in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties.
A movement to refurbish and revive the structures — either for their original use or as lofty overnight accommodations for wilderness visitors — “has spread across the United States,” said Bill Ulmer, director of the association’s California Pacific Division, which stretches from the Los Padres National Forest on the Central Coast through Mendocino County.
Ulmer, along with Greg Bertelli, Cal Fire’s Lake County division chief of operations, were key figures in launching the Konocti lookout reopening. It was scheduled to open in 2015, but then the Valley fire broke out, putting a halt to volunteer staff training and access to the tower. At least one of the trainers lost his home in the fire.
Training resumed in 2016, and the first of the volunteers began scanning the horizon for smoke in June of that year. Towers typically are staffed from June through the first downpour of the rainy season.
About 45 volunteers take turns working the Konocti tower. Of those, about a dozen do so at least weekly.
Their day begins by picking up an equipment-filled backpack and keys at the fire house in Kelseyville, followed by a 45-minute drive up a dusty, potholed switchback road that winds past walnut orchards, an early 1900s homestead and the mangled remnants of a small plane that crashed in the 1970s. A 72-step climb gets them to the tower’s catwalk and a small enclosure with downward slanted windows.
“You look around for fires first thing,” said Chuck Sturges, a retired teacher who trains volunteers in addition to working shifts on the tower.
Then lookouts check in with the Cal Fire office in St. Helena: “St. Helena, Konocti lookout in service,” Meredith radioed in last Thursday. Fellow volunteer Ric Abrams, a retired Kelseyville wine sales executive, used a handheld weather meter to collect temperature, wind and humidity measurements.
The weather was mild, the wind slow, unlike the day before, when gusts were topping out at 28 mph and the humidity was low — conditions ripe to spread fire.
“I didn’t take a break,” Sturges said. “It was exhausting.”
The equipment in the lookout is low tech but effective. If smoke is spotted, lookouts pinpoint the location using an Osborne Fire Finder, a device that has been utilized since 1915 and is based on a similar tool first invented in 1840. It’s comprised of a panoramic map, a circular rim graduated in degrees and sighting apertures.
The anachronistic devices were out of production, but are again being manufactured to serve the resurgence of fire towers.
When the location of smoke on the horizon is determined, the information is radioed in to fire headquarters.
Roughly 90 lookouts in California continue to be operated at least part time by Cal Fire, which owns the Konocti lookout, and the Forest Service, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. That group includes the High Glade lookout on Bartlett Mountain in the Mendocino National Forest in Lake County.
In Sonoma County, volunteers with Pole Mountain Fire Lookout staff a station on the highest peak on the Sonoma Coast, now part of an open space preserve.
The antiquated buildings, some little more than cubes of glass and wood raised high above the forest floor, are proving useful where newer technologies fall short. Remote rural areas have unreliable cellphone service that prevents fire spotters from making immediate reports to 911, and satellites typically register only fires that are larger than 25 acres, Ulmer said. By the time a satellite makes another pass some four hours later, a fire can explode out of control, Ulmer said.
“Spotting fires in remote locations, that’s where they really come in,” Bertelli said of the towers.
The Konocti tower volunteers were the first to spot and report at least two fires this year and at least three last year, he said.
Bertelli said he’s been impressed by the community spirit of the local tower volunteers.
Sturges, Abrams and Meredith said they are motivated by a desire to contribute to their county and a hope to steer it clear of the disastrous blazes of recent years.
“I think of that Valley fire when I’m up here. It helps keep me focused,” Sturges said. “I had a lot of friends lose homes.”
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter.