Nevada County’s eyes in the sky

Volunteers play key role in firefighting

Andrew Wedgbury

Nevada County Advocate

Fire season is here, and many Nevada County residents are familiar with the sight of red and white Cal Fire aircraft roaring overhead on their way to fight another fire. Many don’t realize, however, that the frontline in our firefighting efforts are a collection of lookout towers manned by volunteers. Using sharp eyes and technology developed in the 1940s, the tower volunteers survey an amazing Nevada County vista looking for the first signs of smoke.

Locally, Cal Fire has towers at Banner Mountain, Wolf Mountain and Oregon Creek that have recently opened for operations, with another at Mt. Powell due soon. The U.S. Forestry Service also uses another five lookouts during fire season in this area. According to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Sean Griffis, there are about 100 active volunteers manning the three local towers, which are staffed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“They’ll do one shift from 10 to two, and then another shift from two to six p.m. It’s up to the volunteers to decide if they want to work the full eight hours, or one of the two four-hour shifts,” he said. Volunteers are trained in the towers by experienced staff, usually for two or three shifts, until they are comfortable with the duties and techniques of smoke spotting.

“We also put on a local in-house training, depending on the number of new people and returnees, about two to four hours per year at the beginning of summer to give them the lookout terminology and the basic stuff so they can get going,” Griffis said.

One of the factors that draw many volunteers, he added, is the opportunity to experience the incredible views that the towers offer and at the same time be a part of the local firefighting effort. 

“You get a view that nobody else gets to see, and while you’re up there everybody is counting on you to do your thing. For the whole entire unit of response personnel, they are our first line of defense. If you hear a Banner Mountain smoke report, you stop doing what you’re doing and listen to what they have to say. That report is pretty important to the guys on the ground.” 

Griffis noted that response time from first call to dispatch of resources is usually about five minutes and can be about three minutes with verified accurate information.

To get an accurate location of a suspected fire, volunteers use their eyes as well as the Osborne Fire Finder. Located in the center of the small 49-square foot lookout room on top of the tower, it is a flat rotating ring with sights positioned over a detailed map beneath. Using the azimuth reading from the Osborne and local landmarks and then triangulating the sighting with other towers, an accurate location can be determined. Griffis said that lookouts continue to use reliable Osbornes that are original from the 1940s.

The Banner Mountain lookout opened on July 1, 1911, with just a wooden structure, and in July 1926 the 60-foot steel tower that stands today was dedicated. The tower was renovated in 1948.

Wolf Mountain was completely refurbished in the 1980s and is the most modern of the towers. “They did a complete rebuild and remodel on it and is a more modern facility than Banner or Wolf or Powell, which are still a big metal box on top of a metal tower.”

Kevin McElligott has been a volunteer at the Banner Mountain Lookout since 2015 and enjoys the incredible surroundings but also the chance to contribute to the community.

“I saw an ad in the paper, went to the orientation and came up here, and fell in love. I was in,” he said. “And now I am what you would call a veteran.” Normally he does one shift a week but can fill in for another volunteer who might not be able to make his or her shift. “Everybody covers everybody up here.” 

The fire season has started locally and will run until the area has had two good rainfalls, which will see the closure of the towers.

Volunteers are required to do a 360-degree scan of the surrounding area every seven minutes. Combined with knowledge of the terrain, binoculars, smoke identification and the trusty Osborne, McElligott has a good idea what is serious and what is not. 

“If I see what I think is a smoke event, I’m going to watch it. I’m not going to panic and jump on the radio. We’re going to see if it dissipates, see if it’s building. I’ll line it up and sight it and get the degrees. I’m going to figure out on the map where approximately it is. This is what I’ll be telling Emergency Command Control.” ECC will then start verifying the location, including input from the other towers to get an accurate cross.

McElligott said that it took him some time to become familiar with the terrain and the landmarks around him. The very center of the map on the Osborne is the location of the tower (which is oriented to true north, south, east, west) and he started connecting landmarks and formations with areas on the map. He can now quickly point to and identify locations throughout the Nevada County area from his 3,959-foot perch on Banner Mountain.

Like many long-term volunteers, he also has become familiar with the different types of smoke and their sources, which can be deceiving. If a fire is in a canyon, the smoke can travel along the canyon and then appear elsewhere. Or there could be demolition going on, diesel engines running, or thick dust. 

“Our job up here is to report smoke, that’s what we do. Light smoke is a grass burn, medium gray smoke is getting into trees, dark smoke is man-made objects like houses,” McElligott said.

He also noted that he has been in the tower when storms, including thunderstorms, have come through. 

“A couple of years ago, John Hall, who runs this tower, saw lightning strikes at the airport. At that point, you know you can’t leave the tower, it’s too late.” 

There is a massive copper wire that runs down the tower and grounds it, but an added safety precaution is also used by the volunteers in case of lightning – a stool with ceramic insulators for legs. “You stand on this and cross your arms, because everything up here is metal,” he said with a smile. “I hope I never have to use it.”

As we walked the small catwalk outside identifying landmarks, McElligott reiterated that he never got tired of the spectacular views, but that he felt that more importantly he was contributing to the community. Being able to spot the beginning of a potentially disastrous fire and be a part of a fire fighting effort in our county is a rewarding position. He was instrumental in spotting the Lowell fire and correctly identifying it as a true fire instead of thick dust. Thanks came through on the radio and another fire was averted. A good day for a lookout volunteer.

About the photos: 

Previous page: Kevin McElligott mans the Banner Mountain lookout tower. The Osborne Fire Finder is in the foreground.

Photo by Andrew WedgburY

This page: Nevada City viewed from the Banner Mountain Lookout.

Photo by Kevin McElligott