They look out for us The lonely life on remote towers

View of Big Sur’s Cone Peak Lookout | Soaring Jenkins


By Kate Woods Novoa

Photos provided by Soaring Jenkins

In the fall of 1984, Soaring Jenkins and future husband Isa Starkey climbed up Cone Peak for the first time. She made it up the 2¼-mile trail — cussing, sweating — and there met Ruth Albee, who’d been a lookout in various places for a decade.

Ruth “was in her 60s and loved the trail I’d just sworn at,” Jenkins said. “But I looked around and fell deeply, instantly in love with the tiny glass room and the wide expanse of ocean and mountain views. I told her I wanted to be a lookout and she said, ‘Go ahead and apply here; I’m going to work next year at Chews Ridge Lookout.’”

It was that easy. Jenkins was a lookout there for the next six years and she says she did it for the love of the place. Other Big Sur fire lookouts I know say they do it out of a feeling of service and duty. It’s a way to give back to Big Sur.

Though it was one of the most difficult and isolated lookouts in California, Jenkins-Starkey told me that “I wanted that job more than anything, I felt a strong magnetic pull to be there, yearned for it, and learned everything I could through the Fire Brigade training, to prepare for it.”

Her first year as a lookout was 1985, and that year the Gorda-Rat Creek Fire kept her very busy. It started on July 6 from a lightning strike, and people were mobilized to fight it. The South Coast branch of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade sprung from the Gorda-Rat Creek Fire. (For a firsthand recollection of this fire, see my blog post.

“My first year was one of the busiest in the history of that lookout, with fires all around and constant work on the radio relaying and talking with pilots, crews, dispatch and doing fire orders,” Jenkins-Starkey said during a recent email exchange. “I was tremendously busy that first year, and actually when I started my second year, it was more the typical quiet lookout life, very few fires, and it was a bit of an adjustment to get used to the long quiet days in contrast to the crisis mode of all the fires in my first year.

“My first month and a half I called in over 30 fires and had to be evacuated by helicopter, because the dense smoke and the fire creeping from Twin Peak up to the lookout made it so difficult to breathe.”

Soaring kept a detailed journal about the adventures she had there, and is chronicling them in a manuscript titled “Firebird,” which she has about half written.

She was the last lookout at Cone Peak, and probably one of the last of the paid lookouts who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, at least here in California. When she left in 1990 at the beginning of her sixth season, due to her marriage, the funding for lookouts had also dried up.

“I look back on that time at the lookout as one of the most alive, spacious and nurturing experiences of my life,” she said. “I believe it made me more able to live in our solar house in the wilderness, and gave me skills that are useful for life in the wild. I don’t know who I’d be if I hadn’t followed that dream of living alone on a mountain. I’m so grateful for it. And I felt like I was part of a small and vanishing group, sort of the last remnants of a tribe.

“Now that Chews Ridge has reopened and volunteers are flocking to try out lookout life, that revitalization of enthusiasm is helping me understand what a privilege it was to be the lookout at Cone Peak.”

On October 16, Nadine and Dan Clark had their first lookout day at Chews Ridge. Back at the end of spring or the beginning of summer, Nadine noticed an announcement about fire lookout trainings. Dan was not really interested at the time, so she didn’t apply. Later, she saw it again, and this time her husband responded positively. The volunteer lookout program prefers couples, or at least two in the tower at the same time. They applied.

The volunteer commitment is to man the tower one day a month, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., hours that are subject to adjustments for weather and daylight saving time. Scott McClintock, who is in charge of getting the Chews Ridge Tower up and running, was their instructor for eight hours of classroom instruction. He is funny and very knowledgeable. They then had to schedule a half-day training on site.

The Clarks completed their onsite training on Sept. 8, along with two other Big Sur volunteers, retired Big Sur Fire Brigade Chief Martha Karstens and water tender Jess Mason. Once Dan and Nadine finished both, they were assigned their first shift. They are taught to scan the entire area every 15 minutes, looking for any signs of smoke, and are taught to use the Osborne Firefinder, which is what Jenkins-Starkey used as well.

The Osborne Firefinder is a type of alidade used by fire lookouts to find a directional bearing to smoke so they can be more precise when alerting fire crews to a wildland fire. The Osborne Firefinder, designed by W.B. Osborne, has been used for nearly a century to pinpoint fire locations. It is accurate, requires no power to operate, and is a valued piece of equipment within the firefighting community.

In an article she wrote for the Angeles National Forest Volunteer News in 1996, volunteer Dorit Quass said she was amazed how much easier it was to pinpoint fires once she started using the Osborne Firefinder. “You just line up the hair in the front sight (similar to a rifle sight) with the base of the fire and the peephole in the rear sight,” she wrote “Once the hair is properly aligned with the smoke you take the horizontal reading in degrees and minutes. Then you obtain the vertical angle reading by using the measurement on the sliding metal piece on the rear sight and estimate the miles between the tower and the sight of the smoke using the metal tape on the Osborne Firefinder. After I check the map which is calibrated to my tower’s location and affixed to the Firefinder I can pinpoint the area of a fire very closely.”

At the Chews Ridge lookout, there are panoramic shots of the views posted on the windows, marked with all the pertinent landmarks to help the volunteer lookouts identify the area, as well as the latitude and longitude readings they get from the Osborne Firefinder.

With two people on site during the shift, there is time to do some light maintenance or reading, as long as the are able to get outside every 15 minutes to complete the area scan. “There is also much to read and learn while you’re in the tower,” said Nadine Clark. “There are quite a few books, maps and info to pore over between scan. The views from Chews Ridge are amazing. When it’s clear you can see forever in all directions. I feel like I will know the backside of Big Sur better than the front after a few more sessions.”

Over time, some towers along Big Sur were abandoned and left to deteriorate and have become targets for vandals. The Forest Fire Lookout Association, when possible, teams up with the agency of jurisdiction — around here it is the U.S. Forest Service or CAL FIRE — and tries to preserve them the best they can. When possible, the FFLA restores the towers to working condition and sometimes can actually put them back into service with volunteers, serving two purposes: preserving the artifact with docents and providing early detection of smoke.

In 2017 Scott McClintock was appointed director of the California-South Region, which includes the Monterey area. At that time, only the southernmost lookout towers were being revitalized and put back into service. McClintock began searching the Los Padres National Forest for towers that could be revived.

“At first I found Hi Mountain Lookout, east of San Luis Obispo, where the tower had already been restored as a condor tracking station,” he said. “I produced a video to train the volunteers there in smoke recognition and reporting procedures. That one was easy.”

Then he located Chews Ridge and Cone Peak lookouts. The Forest Service used these structures for storage of radio repeater equipment and to support antennas.  The USFS repaired the leaking roof of Chews Ridge to protect the radio gear, which was a start in its preservation. McClintock began corresponding with the managers of the Monterey Ranger District and in May was given the go-ahead to put the tower back into service.

“Credit needs to be given to the Forest Service employees willing to think outside the bureaucratic box and take the time out of their already over-tasked days to help accommodate us with these projects,” McClintock said.

While there are currently no openings for the 2020 season, applications for the 2021 season are being accepted. If you are interested in additional information, the website is or send an e-mail to McClintock at

“These days, when someone hears about the concept of fire lookout towers, they ask, ‘Aren’t there drones or satellites or webcams that can do the same thing?’” McClintock said. “The answer is yes, in some places those technologies are being developed, but so far they don’t pick up the smokes as early or as accurately as a pair of human eyes with relatively low-tech binoculars.” And for the individual forest fire lookout, besides being of service to the community, the value is almost immeasurable.

“I had a May Sarton quote taped next to my desk: ‘Loneliness is the poverty of self, solitude is the richness of self,’” said Jenkins-Starkey. “It got me through a lot. After I’d been there several years I began to feel that everyone ought to have a long, long period of solitude to learn the contents of their mind, to learn how to exist, to just be, instead of always doing something.”

Learn the contents of one’s mind through solitude. I like that.

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About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.