The Needles Lookout of Sequoia National Forest was lost in a self contained structure fire on July 28, 2011. Below you will find published documents and media releases related to the destructive fire and subsequently the rebuilding of this infamous lookout.
Documents and media releases are listed newest to oldest, starting at the top. Proper credit is attibuted at each document or media release.
Needles Update December 2012
The Forest Service hired a HAZ-MAT team to remove hazardous materials remaining at the Needles site from the 2011 fire. The clean-up was completed in October 2012.
Forest Service zone archaeologist and Needles Rebuild project lead Linn Gassaway submitted a proposal to the Kern and Tulare Counties Resource Advisory Committee for funding to jump-start the Needles rebuilding project. The project was awarded a portion of the requested funding, which will be used as seed money and to leverage donations and matching funds from outside sources.
From Kevin Elliott, Forest Supervisor 5/11/12:
Needles Closure Update
Please download / view this .pdf to view closure information.
From Linn Gassaway, Archaeologist, Sequoia National Forest, 2/8/2012:
The Sequoia National Forest (SQF) has committed to beginning the process to rebuild the Needles Lookout and its tower. Through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the Forest is determining if there are any "significant issues" for natural and cultural resources, and/or social concerns that may need to be address prior to or during reconstruction. We are also beginning to follow up on the outpouring of public interest and offers to help rebuild the lookout, so we can determine how best to plan and organize the rebuild. Through coordination and cooperation with the Buck Rock Foundation, Sierra Club, and Giant Sequoia Monument Association over the next few months we hope to have in place conduits for accepting donations of money, expertise, and determining how to integrate volunteer labor.
Over the next six months we hope to begin developing blue prints, materials lists, equipment, and labor needs, and a signed NEPA decision.
Unfortunately, SQF was unable to contract out the hazardous waste cleanup of the site prior to the most recent storm and is planning on conducting the cleanup in the spring after the snow melts.
How YOU can help now:
We are currently seeking any information on the history of the Needles. Do you have a photos or stories of Needles you would be willing to share? Of special interest would be photos or documentation of the construction of the lookout and blue-prints, plans or drawings of the original cab and tower. Please forward any such information to the Buck Rock Foundation, P.O. Box 540, Squaw Valley, CA 93675 or email: email@example.com
Giant Sequoia National Monument
Hume Lake and Western Divide Ranger Districts
Sequoia National Forest
Phone: 559-338-2251 ext. 396
From Kathy Allison of the Buck Rock Foundation, 11/12/2011:
"On October 31, 2011, Buck Rock Foundation directors Brent Iden and Kathy Allison met with Forest Service personnel at the Western Divide Ranger District office in Springville to discuss the rebuilding of The Needles Lookout. District Ranger Priscilla Summers expressed her desire to go forward with the process to rebuild the lookout and agreed that the next step is to hold a public meeting to "brainstorm" ideas of how best to accomplish that goal. We are hoping that meeting takes place before the end of the year. We will update our website as soon as the meeting date, time and location are announced."
An open letter from Patrick Paul, 10/13/2011:
This is a letter I am sending to the Forest Supervisor, the Ranger, and my federal and state representatives.
I have commitments by Tulare County Supervisor Mike Ennis, The Buck Rock Foundation, The Southern California Mountaineer’s Association, Torey and Jason Ivanic (The Southern Sierra Climbers’ Association), E.C. Joe (Guidebook Author), Kris Solem (Guidebook Author) and 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.
Former Southern Sierra Climbers’ Association President
Outdoor Enthusiast and Lover of Nature and The Needles Experience
From Denise Alonzo, Public Affairs
FUTURE OF NEEDLES FIRE LOOKOUT PENDING
SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST The Needles Fire Lookout Tower, located in the Western Divide Ranger District within Giant Sequoia National Monument, Sequoia National Forest was destroyed in a structure fire on July 28, 2011. No one was injured in this tragic event. The fire in the tower and multiple debris-caused fires on the ground have been suppressed by firefighters. Now, the question on everybody’s mind is whether the Forest Service will rebuild the tower or not, and if yes, what will it take? “I have been contacted by quite a few people who have voiced their interest and support in seeing the tower rebuilt,” stated Priscilla Summers, Western Divide District Ranger.
“The first priority is to remove the charred debris from the top of the rock” stated Summers. Some of the materials in or under the tower that burned were batteries and propane tanks that charged radios and other communication devices in the tower. These items, some of which are considered hazardous material, need to be removed in a safe manner and could take until the end of September to complete.
Forest Officials will continue to keep the area adjacent to the rock formation where the tower was perched closed for public safety until the charred debris can be safely removed and hauled away. The closure area is within one-quarter mile circle of where the tower once sat, including the formation popular for rock climbers known as “The Magician.” The Needles Road 21S05 and trail 32E22 that leads to the site has been re-opened for hikers and rock climbers to access the area outside this closure.
There are many steps to consider and complete should the Forest Service propose to construct a new tower. An assessment of the rock and foundation where the tower once sat would be necessary to determine its integrity to support a new structure. New building requirements would need to be researched and considered in any design. An environmental analysis and documentation with public review would be required. Funding for a replacement tower and the planning efforts it would require to complete will be considered. “All of this cannot be completed quickly,” stated Summers.
The lookout tower was constructed in 1937-38 by the Civilian Conservation Corps atop the rock formation at 8,245 feet. A Forest Service employee, stationed in the tower, was responsible for detecting fires and relaying radio messages to a dispatcher, who in turn sent firefighters and support equipment to extinguish the reported fire. The employee who worked in the Needles tower has been reassigned to another lookout tower on the District.
Needles overlooked the Kern River Drainage, Mt. Whitney, Olancha Peak, Farewell Gap, and Dome Rock. The tower was the primary communication line for persons in the backcountry where cell phones do not work. The Needles Lookout Tower was one of the most popular places to visit on the Western Divide Ranger District.
“The loss of this historic landmark and the communication it provided to backcountry travelers is significant,” stated Summers. “I ask for everyone’s patience and understanding as we move through the steps required to consider a rebuild of the tower. Similar to other projects proposed on the National Forest, whatever action we take at the site will have to go through an extensive evaluation process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA.) Even though it (the tower) was there historically, it does not exempt us from having to conduct analysis and public involvement for any proposed actions at the site.”
From our Executive Director Kathy Allison
The current priority for the Forest Service is the clean-up and safe removal of what remains of the fire lookout. Zone Archaeologist Linn Gassaway hiked out to the rock the week following the fire and assessed the situation. Although most everything was destroyed, Linn discovered a few pieces of pottery and part of the Osborn Firefinder while sifting through the rubble. The wood stove was still standing in place.
The Forest Service has been receiving many phone calls and emails regarding the future of the Needles, with many people advocating to rebuild. The Buck Rock Foundation (BRF) is assisting the forest with documentation of any interest or comments regarding the Needles. Please send your contact information to the BRF (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to be notified when the Forest Service puts the NEPA together.
After a brief stay at her home in Colorado, fire watcher Margee Kelly is back in the saddle, staffing Jordan Peak Lookout for the Western Divide Ranger District and plans on remaining there through the end of fire season. She is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and thanks those who have expressed their well-wishes. Her grandchildren and their cat are doing well.
The Needles Lookout
“Porterville, Needles, Emergency Traffic. The roof of the lookout is on fire and I need immediate assistance.”
With those words, Margee Kelly called in the most important smoke report of her career. An ember from the wood stove landed on the shake roof of The Needles Fire Lookout sparking a fire that quickly spread along the roof and eventually into the attic. Grabbing the fire extinguisher Margee fought to put the fire out, even climbing up on a ladder placed on the catwalk in an attempt to get closer to the blaze.
Sequoia Forest Helicopter 522 launched from the Peppermint Helibase in a matter of minutes dropping several buckets of water on the structure in what Margee calls “a heroic effort to save the lookout.” Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain.
Margee and her two grandchildren, who were visiting her at the time, escaped without injury, and stood helpless as they watched their beloved tower succumb to the fire. Twenty four years of Margee’s accumulated treasures went up in flame - collections of photos, memorabilia, newspaper clippings, first edition author-autographed books, a recently refurbished telescope, pottery, and so much more perished in the fire.
It is not surprising that there has been an overwhelming outpouring of concern for Margee as well as questions about the future of The Needles. Margee is taking some time to recover but hopes to continue working this summer staffing one of the unmanned fire towers on the Western Divide Ranger District. There is talk of organizing an effort to take up a collection to help replace some of the items she lost.
It is too soon to speculate about the intentions of the Forest Service to re-build the lookout – it is a daunting task given current health and safety regulations, codes, red-tape and location. However, there is already a substantial public outcry supporting the restoration of the lookout and we are hopeful those pleas will be recognized.
Built by the CCC’s in 1937-1938, The Needles was quite possibly the most impressively situated fire tower perched as it is on one of several granite needle-like domes rising up from the depths of the Kern Canyon. Recognized for its world-class climbing, the Needles has long been a popular destination for adventurers from all over the world.
© 2019 Buck Rock Foundation. All Rights Reserved. PO Box 540, Squaw Valley, CA 93675. 559-901-8151