The Needles

All current inquiries regarding the rebuilding of The Needles fire lookout should be directed to the Sequoia National Forest/Giant Sequoia National Monument Supervisor’s Office 1839 S. Newcomb Avenue, Porterville, CA 93257. Phone: 559-784-1500, FAX: 559-781-4744.

 

Past Press Releases and Media Articles can be found at our Needles Archive page HERE.

 


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The Needles Lookout History

The Needles Lookout was quite possibly the best known of any fire tower anywhere. Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the lookout was used as a primary fire detection location and communication link for the Sequoia National Forest, until it was lost in a structure fire on July 28, 2011. Beloved by world-class climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, The Needles was a popular destination for people from around the world. The lookout cab was a 14x14 foot wooden “C-3” style cab with very few modifications over the years. The windows, siding, roof and tower all remained as original. The cab had over-head shutter supports, which became standard on C-3 and L-4 cabs in 1936 and lent to its historical importance. The lookout sat on a granite pinnacle thousands of feet above the Kern River canyon with commanding views of the High Sierra. After a 2.5 mile hike, access to the cab was along stairways and walkways that were suspended across granite outcrops. According to Mark Swift, archaeologist who nominated Needles to the National Historic Lookout Register, Needles was “one of the most fantastic lookout locations in California rivaled by Buck Rock on the North end of the Forest.” The Needles was a Region 5 style cab, which was not widely utilized elsewhere, although a few were built in Region 3. This lookout was significant to the development of Region 5 lookout styles as a final form of the standard 14x14 wooden live-in cabs. Following the mid-1950’s a variety of steel wall cabs became the primary lookouts built in California. On Mark Thornton’s 1988 “Fire Lookout Evaluation” it was rated a 26 out of a possible 30 points. The following is an excerpt from “Opportunities for Enrollees to Learn Trade and Study at CCC Camps” by Hamilton Pyles, Forest Engineer, SQNF, 1938:

The Needles are immediately west of Kern River and some 42 miles north of Kernville. The tip of the needle is over 8000 feet in elevation, and the building is to be constructed on this tip. The are on top of the needle is approximately 14 feet by 14 feet, with a sheer drop on three sides varying from 60 to over 400 feet. AS this is dangerous work, only a small picked crew of enrollees is used in the construction – boys who are sure-footed and not effect by the height. Besides this precaution, all safety measures possible are taken, the top crew working at all times with safety belts. A small camp is located at the Quaking Aspen Campground where the building crew stays during the week. The materials are packed in over two miles of trail to the Needles Rock. The first step is to lay-out the foundation and orient the building with cardinal points. The enrollee has a chance to actually use a compass and is instructed by practical application in the use of the square. The next step is to drill the rock of dowell pins. He gets instruction in the use of the single jack and hand steel in drilling. He helps to build forms and tie reinforcement steel; he learns the practical method of mixing cement by hand and the proper proportions of sand, water, gravel, and cement for the required concrete. He helps the carpenter cut the studying and rafters and learn the practical use of the templet and carpenter’s tools. When he returns at night to the camp his instruction may be continued. The Educational Advisor in camp will arrange for a correspondent course in Civil Engineering or a Carpentry Course with instruction in camp and the foreman will help the enrollee to correlate his practical work with his book work. In this manner the enrollee may achieve maximum knowledge from his daily work.

 

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The Needles Rebuild: An open letter from Patrick Paul, 10/13/2011
At the time this letter was sent to the Forest Supervisor, the District Ranger, and to federal and state representatives, Patrick had personal commitments from Tulare County Supervisor Mike Ennis, The Buck Rock Foundation, The Southern California Mountaineer’s Association, Tory and Jason Ivanic (The Southern Sierra Climber’s Association), E.C. Joe (guidebook author), Kris Solem (guidebook author), Bill Roberts of Roberts Engineering in Porterville, CA and Robert Krase (attorney).

 

Please feel free to use this letter in any way you deem fit or necessary to promote the rebuilding of the fire lookout at The Needles.

To whom it may concern,

For over 100 years fire lookouts have been a mainstay in fire suppression and forest management in the United States. Strategically placed fire lookouts and the people who work in them have performed the crucial service of early fire detection, operated as vital communications liaisons, and in many cases tourist information centers, and tourist destinations. Some fire lookout personnel, such as those dedicated people who have worked at The Needles and Buck Rock lookouts, have even served uniquely as invaluable USDA Forest Service ambassadors and spokespersons.

The Needles fire lookout, for almost three-quarters of a century, has been one of the premier representatives of all that is positive and good about public land management. Since 1937, The Needles fire cab has served the public interest, helped to suppress catastrophic fires, been a vital communications link for foresters, been a spectacular tourist destination for multiple generations, and been a big part and participant in the natural and climbing history of the Southern Sierra.

The history of The Needles fire lookout is well known among members of the Forest Service. It would be rare to find a forester in Southern and Central California who hasn’t been to The Needles, or heard of it. Its primary function as a fire lookout is obvious and it served diligently in that capacity for 74 years. During its tenure as one of the most uniquely placed fire lookouts it also became a valuable communications link for forest personnel, fire suppression units, and even, at times, emergency response units, and law enforcement. The location of The Needles fire cab, placed high on one of the most spectacular rock formations in America, set it apart as a must see, must visit, must experience piece of public architecture and history.

The Needles fire cab was not just a fire lookout. And it was more than a popular tourist destination. For more than a few generations of outdoor enthusiasts the two and one-half mile scenic hike was a legacy experience. Many generations of children had their first outdoor experience hiking out to visit “that little gray castle in the sky.” Many older people today had a formative experience trailing behind their parents immersed, wide-eyed, in the wonder of that magical place, climbing the stairs, stepping on to the catwalk atop the highest point of The Needles rock formation, and taking in the astounding view that might otherwise only be had by raptors, ringtail cats, and few daredevil rock climbers. Making a yearly pilgrimage to The Needles has become a tradition for many. Like John Muir, wishing to pass the experience on to future generations, many lovers of the breath-taking beauty of the outdoors brought their children and grandchildren to The Needles year-after-year. It would be difficult to match such a formative experience. So many times have people made the journey to The Needles, spirits elevated and soaring like the Peregrine Falcons that dive and lord over the rocks, and souls embraced by this unique experience unlike any other.

Many of the old lookouts have been abandoned or replaced by technology that can do as good a job at fire detection as any human being. Many of the old lookouts have been perched on high, obscure, and mundane overlooks that, although functional in their day, were not spectacular or breathtaking to those who seldom visited them. Very few fire lookouts have been worthy of the word of mouth reputation, magazine articles, newspaper articles, or the television coverage The Needles has garnered over the decades. The Needles has captured the attention of many and fueled the imaginations of all who have been there, seen it, or read about it.

The Needles has served the people of the United States well over its 74 year history. An antenna and web-cam could do a good enough job of detecting fires. But an antenna and a web-cam could never do the ambassadorship, the public relations, the character building, the history talk, or the awakening of the love of the outdoors that the old Needles fire lookout has done with a pleasant representative there each summer day to tell stories, show people what is out there, and help them reflect on the awesome majesty within their view. The Needles has provided more than anyone expected. The tax payers who paid for it generations ago had no idea that they were creating a living museum, a goodwill ambassador’s post, a comfort station, a nature preserve, a climber’s Mecca, and a shrine to the workers of the CCC and WPA of the Great Depression. The Needles was, and still could be, a great taxpayer investment. The Needles must be restored for those who have come to love it, for those want to see their tax dollars spent on meaningful endeavors that reinforce and support real American values, and for future generations of people who deserve to share in the unique experience that previous generations were so lucky to have.

Please rebuild The Needles fire lookout. Use the resources you have, the resources that are being offered to you, and the resources that will be mustered if you commit to this project. I urge you to make a public announcement and file a press release stating that the Forest Service will rebuild the fire lookout at The Needles.

Sincerely,

Patrick Paul
Former Southern Sierra Climbers’ Association President
Rock Climber
Outdoor Enthusiast and Lover of Nature and The Needles Experience

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