Smoke Spotters Guard SoCal Mountaintops

The Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association sends volunteers to mountaintops all over the backcountry. On high fire danger days, these smoke-spotters often stop fires before they become firestorms.

25 photos
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Connie Bolger
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Volunteers watch over U.S. Forest Service land during high-fire danger days.
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Connie Bolger
The Vetter Mountain overlook is right in the middle of the Station Fire burn area in the Angeles National Forest.
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Connie Bolger
The volunteers take a two-hour drive up fire roads to get to this outpost for a dawn-to-dusk shift.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
This is a temporary, open-air station that they're using until they can rebuild a new cabin for the volunteers.
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Connie Bolger
Randy Heyn-Lamb has been volunteering as a lookout for six years.
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Their only structure that survived the Station Fire is this unlikely wooden picnic area.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
The forest is coming back, slowly but surely.
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Connie Bolger
Doni Heyn-Lamb volunteers with her husband. She takes humidity readings every hour or so for USFS fire officials.
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The wind monitor is a little more low-tech, but a lot more patriotic.
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Disney 2014
The Station Fire has visitors down to just a handful this year since the roads are closed. Our NBCLA crew is one of just a couple who have signed the guestbook.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Green shoots are sprouting up after a wet winter following the Station Fire.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Randy spots a little smoke in the distance and calls it in.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
They have to have sharp eyes to spot anomalies in the forest.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Mount Wilson's TV towers survived the Station Fire. This is the view from the Vetter Mountain lookout, which evacuated a few days into the firestorm.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
A puff of smoke on the horizon raises the alarm in the lookout station.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Doni fills out a fire log as Randy checks the smoke's coordinates.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
They write down everything they see for the station's records.
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Randy uses an Osborne FireFinder to pinpoint the fire's coordinates.
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Volunteers line up the smoke in the FireFinder's crosshairs to determine its exact location in degrees.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Each inch on the Firefinder's ruler equals two miles.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
Fire on the horizon is almost impossible to see, but the volunteers have training to recognize it, and determine how heavy the brush is in which it's burning.
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The collection box is about as lonely as the mountain this year, with very few visitors.
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Connie Bolger
Randy has sharp eyes and sees smoke, where most people would just see a pretty view.
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Jennifer Bjorklund
The forest is safe on their watch. Click here to watch the full story.
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