Over the last 50 years, fire lookouts have been disappearing from our mountains at a rate of one per week. From a high of approximately 8,000, there are now less than 1,000 in the U.S., with only a few hundred actually staffed and working. There is one in particular that could represent all those left standing.
In the land of the Giant Sequoias, perched on a granite rock dome at 8,500 feet, Buck Rock Lookout has a 360 degree view of the Great Western Divide, from the Coast Range to Kings Canyon to high peaks near Mt. Whitney. First staffed in the early 1900's by men who sat on an open platform on top of the dome, Buck Rock received its current building in 1923 which is historically significant as one of the earliest 4-A style live-in cabs (there are only three left in existence.) Access to the top is via a series of stair flights (consisting of 172 steps) suspended from the side of the rock.
Until just a few years ago, Buck Rock Lookout was left to decay into the landscape. Shuttered from 1987 through 1998, it was basically abandoned, used only for emergencies during the summers. In 1997, however, a fast moving thunderstorm dramatically changed the future of the lookout. As the storm rolled across the Central Valley of California in early August of that year, the Forest Service re-opened Buck Rock and dispatched personnel to track the storm. Dry lightning fired across the ridges below the lookout, struck a tree, and started the Choke Fire, which ended up burning over 5000 acres. The person working the lookout that day radioed in the initial report of the fire, and it became a "Type Two" incident with several hundred firefighters working on it.
Over the six weeks of working on the fire, the lookout personnel on Buck Rock monitored the Choke Fire's progress, relayed radio calls to firefighters, and helped coordinate helicopter traffic. During this same time period almost 2000 people visited the lookout, many for the first time in several years. It was apparent to those working in the lookout that Buck Rock shouldn't be allowed to fade away. Its high elevation and 360 degree view not only made it a natural for spotting fires, helping with radio communications, taking weather observations, but also made it an intrinsic part of the local community.
Before it was closed in the Eighties, generations of families visited and re-visited Buck Rock, and climbing the 172 stairs had become a tradition for them. They were heartbroken when they couldn't pass this experience on. With all this in mind, four local people, Jeff Monaco, Dan Battreall, Kathy Ball Allison, and Leatrice Dotters, formed the Buck Rock Foundation to try and save it. Working with the Forest Service, they chased down grants, recruited volunteers, and finally re-opened it for good in 2000.
Today, Buck Rock is staffed 7 days a week during fire season. The lookouts continue to call in fires while receiving thousands of visitors every summer.
© 2019 Buck Rock Foundation. All Rights Reserved. PO Box 540, Squaw Valley, CA 93675. 559-901-8151