October 28, 2017

Surveilling the Santa Monica Mountains For Smoke

You might think that technology has supplanted the need for a human being to actually keep watch over the forest for wildfires—but sometimes, what we really need is a warning that something might be amiss.

With how quickly these conflagrations can spread, we need to catch them before things really go wrong.

And that’s where fire lookout towers come in pretty handy. But sadly, most of our forested fire detection facilities have been replaced by aerial surveillance.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations devoted to preserving the heritage of our historic fire lookouts—but not all of them have been preserved. Hundreds have burned down, succumbed to weather conditions, or been demolished or otherwise destroyed.

One of the last remaining “firelooks” in Southern California that you can visit—one of the last vestiges of a dying breed—is the Old Topanga Fire Lookout in Malibu, sandwiched between Stunt Ranch State Park and Topanga State Park and just off the Backbone Trail.

After finding the trailhead where Stunt Road meets Schueren Road and Saddle Peak Road, by the Lois Ewen Overlook, I walked along the Topanga Tower Motorway, which is a paved fire road until it splits off to the left and becomes a dirt trail.

I stuck to the main, wide, dirt trail, resisting some of the spur trail scrambles that go up the ridge to the right...

...and the paved portion to the right that becomes Radio Relay and leads to the privately owned radio tower.

I passed graffitied pieces of concrete that I though might have tumbled down from the firelook up ahead...

...until I spotted a concrete slab atop a peak straight ahead.

Hikers have clawed their way to the top at the end of the trail, but I followed a single-track trail to the right for a much more civilized climb up some old, graffitied steps.

On a clear day, it was hard to imagine that the smog had ever gotten so bad that it rendered the lookout tower more or less obsolete.

By 1972, the fire department had been relying nearly exclusively on helicopter surveillance and reports from nearby civilians.

And all that's left now is the slab, covered in messages mundane and profane, painted by teenagers who go up there to smoke and boast and Lord knows what else.

If nothing else, I got a spectacular view from up there—and that, of course, was by design.

For my complete roundup of fire lookouts for KCET, click here.

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