San Gabriel Valley Tribune

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Friday, May 21, 2004 - 8:08:56 PM PST

South Mount Hawkins lookouts returning
Lookouts return to fire duties
By Jennifer Torres , Staff Writer

South Mount Hawkins
The site of the original Mt. Hawkins Lookout tower with a model of the new tower that will be built. The tower was destroyed in the Curve Fire in 2002 and was built in 1937. ( Staff Photo Keith Birmingham)
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST -- Purple wildflowers are growing amid the melted glass and charred timber, all that remains of the South Mount Hawkins lookout tower, destroyed almost two years ago by the Curve Fire.

Volunteer lookouts, who today will resume watch at the site above Azusa, hope a replacement tower can rise there too. Until it does, they will spend weekend shifts during this year's fire season sitting between the four concrete pylons that supported the tower for about 65 years.

Kermit Eller, a volunteer lookout, said he watched the Curve Fire from another Angeles lookout station, but because of the thick smoke he could not tell whether Hawkins was still there, he said.

"The hardest part was not knowing whether the tower had burned or not,' Eller said. "The Forest Service couldn't tell us until two or three dayslater.'

When they did find out, volunteers with the Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association were heartbroken, said Pam Morey, president of the volunteer group that staffs the lookouts and is raising money to resurrect the 30- foot-tall structure.

"The fire was man-caused, it wasn't nature,' she said. "It would have been easier to accept if nature had taken it back.'

So far, the group has raised about $20,000 of the $85,000 needed to build an exact replica, Charles White, a spokesman for the group and a volunteer lookout, said.

The final completion date will depend on how quickly the money comes in, White said, and until then, lookouts will spend their eight-hour shifts on the ground, outfitted with a map, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

Ric Opalka, who will serve the first shift today and who volunteered at South Mount Hawkins for three years before it burned, said he is eager to return to the summit.

"Here we are in such a crowded area that this place seemed so far away,' Opalka said of the site from which some nights he could see Disneyland fireworks more than 30 miles in the distance. "It felt like home.'

Besides keeping an eye out for smoke in the forest, the lookouts also keep weather records and act as forest docents, White said.

Built in 1937, the original wooden tower was topped by a 15-foot--by-15-foot cab, surrounded by a narrow catwalk. Inside was a cot, a gas stove, cabinets and an Osborne Fire Finder a large cylindrical tool with a topographical map inside to help lookouts pinpoint the location of a fire.

All of it burned.

But Eller has built a new outhouse and a new wooden Osborn, and Morey said she has the original 1937 plans for the cab and can hire an architect to copy the tower plans from pictures. Despite the worry that fire might again consume another wooden lookout, Morey said it is important, for the sake of historical preservation, to keep the new building as similar to the original as possible.

"It's on the borderline of the wilderness,' she said. "To put a metal structure up there wouldn't be appropriate.'

Eller agreed, adding there was something special about the South Mount Hawkins lookout, and remembering a day there when dense clouds came as low as the catwalk.

"It was tempting to step out and walk all the way to Mount Baldy," he said. "It was ethereal.'

-- Visit the Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association website at angeleslookouts.org to learn more.


Jennifer Torres can be reached at (626) 578-6300, ext. 4496, or by e-mail at jennifer.torres@sgvn.com.

Copyright 2004 San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Los Angeles Newspaper Group