Lookouts man Sawmill Peak fire tower with community support in Calif.

By Ryan Olson
Chico Enterprise-Record (California) 
Copyright 2006 MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers
All Rights Reserved

PARADISE, Calif. — As the fire season progresses, the ridge and surrounding area will have a pair of eyes monitoring conditions.

Since Friday, Butte County Fire/CDF has manned the tower atop the 3,238-foot-tall Sawmill Peak. The tower overlooking Magalia and Paradise is being manned using funds raised in the community.

Les Olinger, one of the lead organizers of the community effort, said it's been tougher raising money this year compared to last year. However, donations picked up after a spate of fires around the ridge and enough money has been raised to man the tower through most of October.

"Everybody's been pitching in," he said. "We just need more."

Last year, Olinger and the Ridge Equestrian Association helped raise money to man the tower for six weeks starting in mid-August. With the horse group now disbanded, Olinger said he and a group of friends kept the fundraising effort moving.

Including some money saved from last year, Olinger said $14,000 has been collected so far. It costs about $8,000 to man the tower for a month.

George Morris, deputy chief of Butte County Fire/CDF, said the community is to be commended for its work.

Morris said the lookout can be useful in fighting fires. While a resident with a phone may spot a fire first, the experienced lookout can help pinpoint a blaze and provide updates to firefighters on the ground.

"Even if a lookout doesn't see a fire first, it can obviously be helpful to have that intelligence," he said.

The CDF worked with Olinger's group and helped with many of the items that needed to be done before the towers could be manned, including maintenance and physicals for personnel.

Morris said September and October are good months to staff the towers -- many living plants are dry and arid northerly winds blow hot and strong.

"If I can't put them up any other time of year, that's when I would put them up," he said.

The tower has been sporadically manned since 2001 when the state cut regular staffing for many towers, including Sawmill.

The CDF mans some towers occasionally during red-flag days when there is an increased risk of fire. This year, Morris said towers on Bald Mountain and Bloomer Hill were staffed on some red-flag days, but not Sawmill.

In 2005, the horse association's fundraising effort garnered enough money to man the tower for six weeks.

While Sawmill Peak and a handful of other towers will be manned with funds raised by local communities, Morris said there hasn't been any action at the state-level to restore regular funding. He said local firefighters would like to see funding for towers restored.

Olinger said the state should fund the towers. While the cost of manning all the towers may be high, Olinger said the towers are designed to work together to help spot and stop wildfires before they grow too large.

"We've had some really close calls in Paradise this summer," he said. "It's just a matter of time before it happens."

Contributions may be sent to Olinger's business: Downtown Market, 208 Pearson Road, Paradise, CA 95969. Raffle tickets are also being sold for a serigraph print of Sawmill Peak that will be given away during Johnny Appleseed Days in October.

Olinger collects the donations and sends them to the Paradise Volunteer Firefighters, which releases the funds to CDF for the tower.

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