Rain was softly pattering against the windows in the top story of the Grasshopper Fire Lookout Tower. As a Californian, I couldn’t have been happier to see water falling from the sky—but as a new fire lookout staff, another concern was distracting me completely. Why haven’t we replaced the lightning stool yet? I wondered, frantically.
The Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) has recently begun staffing and restoring the Grasshopper Fire Lookout Tower, located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This version of the lookout tower was built in 1958, and has been unstaffed—due to lack of funding—for the last four years. The quality of the tower’s interior has been noticeably degrading: the floors covered in broken, rotting tiles, the walls seething in spots of mold and patches of rust, wood bare counters leaving splinters in a passing hand. The project, funded by PG&E in September, has replaced floors, lighting fixtures, furniture and window trim, repainted the interior walls and exterior catwalk, installed tile in the kitchen and a new shower in the bathroom, and upgraded the electrical and water systems. In the space above the massive windows, the new lookouts may now gaze at oil-painted murals to help gain perspective on the grandiose landscape surrounding them.
Aside from construction and physical tower upgrades, the project also funds a Lookout Tower staff. In late September, Mattole residents (partly associated with the MRC and Honeydew Volunteer Fire Company) gathered for one of two days of training with longtime Grasshopper lookout Beth Neumeyer. Beth recalled some of her experiences over the duration of her 21 years staffing Grasshopper Lookout and explained the basic protocol for reporting “smokes” to Fortuna Fire Dispatch. “This is your range of responsibility,” she explained, gesturing at the fire finder.
My first day began a week later. As I arrived, the sun was just beginning to caress the green sloped ridges, the golden misty prairies, and the white, thick fog blanket that shrouded the South Fork of the Eel River to the east. I reluctantly tore my eyes from the mesmerizing scene and began the first day on duty—scanning the beautiful intricacies of the surrounding 15 miles for any sign of smoke.
Though informative and productive, Beth’s stories during the training had left me feeling like the odds of me seeing smokes and/or lightning conditions were pretty slim. The heroes of Humboldt County’s Fire Departments and CALFIRE seem to be doing a great job on their own, after all. Besides, if I did see a smoke, how was I supposed to translate what my eyes were seeing into a 2-dimensional pinprick on the map?
Hours into my first day on the job, a small grey column appeared to the southeast. Contrary to my previous concerns and anxieties, the smoke was blatantly apparent. Grey curls of vapor swirled up, rising above Kerr Peak before mixing with the atmosphere. While fog moves quickly and evaporates rapidly around a consistent elevation in light wisps and fingers, this was a tight, small, unmoving column.
Panic struck. I placed the smoke within the sights of the fire finder and tried to quickly yet accurately gauge the distance. I breathlessly called in the smoke report, shaking while I waited silently for a response. Fifteen minutes later the crews were dispatched—engines, air attack vessels, ground crews. It turns out that my estimate of 17 miles out was a little off, and I had spotted a smoke over 20 miles away in Northern Mendocino County. After leaving Mendocino County Fire Department on the scene, the pilot of the spotter plane went out of their way to pass the tower, buzzing a wing just overhead as I cheered and waved from the tower catwalk.
A flash lit the tower. I spun to look towards the west, the apparent direction of the light. Unblinking, I held my breath and listened, watched. Within minutes, my eyes moved quickly to another flash of light, to the northwest, where I saw one, two, three, four, five bolts strike down in a fragmented zap of electricity. My mind raced, and any knowledge of fundamental physics fled my thoughts entirely. Why did everything surrounding me suddenly seem conductive? I sat on the non-lightning approved stool for the next two hours, listening to the intermittent thunder without seeing another flash. The tower is grounded via four massive metal cables that run into the ground: I had been safe all along. And the new custom-built lightning stool is finished, too!
As we all know, the threat of fires and lightning strikes are incredibly real and not to be taken lightly. With this project, CALFIRE, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, PG&E, Mattole Restoration Council, and Honeydew Volunteer Fire Company are collaborating to restore and improve conditions of a valuable fire safety resource for Humboldt County.