On the Lookout
If Rick Baender’s first day on the job at the Martis Peak fire lookout this year is any indication of what’s to come, residents and fire managers from Calpine to South Lake Tahoe will be thankful he’s on the job.On June 30, Baender recorded 57 lightning strikes throughout the region, five of which started fires. And while firefighters quickly reacted to the burns that were active that day, it’s the sleeper fires that may smolder undetected for days before re-igniting under dry conditions that make the lookout especially valuable.This season Baender can be found atop Martis Peak four days each week. The other three days the lookout is staffed by volunteers looking to do some community service while enjoying one of the most incredible views in the Truckee-Tahoe area.”One of the most important things up here is our volunteer program. There’s no way we’d be able to do this without it. Not only because of the funding, but for the support they provide,” Baender said.State budget shortfalls almost kept the lookout from being fully staffed this season. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which operates the lookout, lost funding for the program two years ago. After realizing the importance of the lookout in protecting the million-dollar homes in their community, the Northstar Fire Department decided to pay Baender’s salary.That makes the Martis Peak lookout one of a dying breed, as actively staffed fire lookouts have been disappearing throughout the West in recent years. Currently, the Martis Peak lookout is the only one operating in the Tahoe Basin – the last of four that once stood sentinel over the area’s forests. Looking north away from the Tahoe Basin, the U.S. Forest Service has lookouts on Sardine Peak, Verdi Peak and Calpine that are staffed intermittently when conditions warrant – such as during thunder storms. A lookout on Babbit Peak north of Truckee is still staffed by U.S. Forest Service personnel full time.That makes Baender’s job and that of the volunteers at the Martis Peak lookout more difficult – and also more important.”There’s no doubt about it, there’s a lot of responsibility up here. People might think it’s leisure and you just look out a window and sit; but it goes well above and beyond that,” Baender said. “You basically have one trillion-plus dollars, between timber and real estate value, out here that you’re … supervising.”Collaborative effortBut while the Northstar Fire Department pays Baender’s salary, firefighting agencies throughout the region reap the benefit of having the lookout open.The Martis Peak lookout, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and sits on federal land, is operated by CDF and funded by Northstar Fire, making it a truly collaborative effort between federal, state and local agencies. In addition, firefighting agencies throughout the Tahoe-Truckee region benefit from the lookout’s ability to spot smoke and fires throughout the area.”Generally [the lookout] is calling in close to 25 smoke reports a year,” said CDF Capt. Dean Levonian. “A lot of those end up not being actual fires, but we did have one two years ago where the lookout picked up a first report on a fire that started off of Prosser Village Road that, had he not called that in when he did, I have no doubt we would have lost structures in Prosser Lakeview. So right there the lookout paid for itself.”That value is multiplied by the fact that the lookout can be used to verify smoke reports from callers who may not be familiar with local landmarks, which could lead firefighters in the wrong direction.
By using a landmark guide and a 75-year-old Osborne Fire Finder, a device that allows a person to pinpoint the location of smoke visible from the lookout, Baender or the volunteers can verify exactly where a column of smoke is coming from. And with visibility from the lookout sometimes stretching 120 miles to Mt. Lassen in the north, that service can be a big help to dispatchers trying to decide which departments need to respond to a fire in the region.A worthy cause and incredible view”I’ve got the best job in the world – the best office window, that’s for sure,” Baender said recently from his perch on top of Martis Peak.That view is one of the big draws for the volunteers who staff the lookout, said Levonian, who is in charge of the volunteer program.”We sign everybody up as a Volunteer In Prevention (VIP), and then we provide their training and all the materials it takes to work up there as a lookout,” Levonian said. “We don’t ask for any time commitment from any of the volunteers. It’s whatever they feel they can put into it. We know that everybody has busy lives.”For the most part it is local people who volunteer, Levonian said. Many see it as a community service opportunity and to enjoy an amazing view at the same time. Some even bring their families up to the lookout with them for the day.”It is pretty unique,” Levonian said. “Not too many people get to be fire lookouts, and this is an opportunity for anybody who has an interest in it to be a fire lookout and help make the community safer.”Howard Snider, a volunteer who made the trip up from Grass Valley on Saturdays last year to staff the lookout, said it was his own personal history with the place that made him want to volunteer.”What keeps me coming back is that I’ve been familiar with that lookout since I was 4 years old,” he said. “It’s a marvelous place. It looks into the entire Lake Tahoe Basin, it looks into three quarters of the Truckee area … and on a clear day you can see Mt. Lassen and pretty much the entire Sierra Rim from Lake Tahoe to Castle Peak.”The one word of advice Snider had for other volunteers: “Bring peanuts for the squirrels” of which you’ll see a lot, he said.A local volunteer, Steve Marshman, was recently up at the lookout this Fourth of July to witness the spectacle of five sets of fireworks in one evening.”What makes me volunteer up there is just the serenity and just giving something back to the community,” he said. “What I like about it is I’ve been going up there now for about 42 years. The first time I went up there I was about 8 years old with my dad in his Ford wagon. Even as a teenager I went up there quite a bit and looked around. Every single lookout is very special, they’re just neat places.”Special enough that a staffer’s days are often filled with visitors, as locals in the know bring guests up to check out the view, and hikers on the Tahoe Rim Trail often take a detour up the road to the lookout.”We get a lot of visitors up there,” said Levonian. “A lot of people hike up to see the lookout and we encourage people to come in and see the operation. So what the lookouts, both paid and volunteers, find is that they spend a lot of time just talking to people who come up to look at it.”
Indeed, the guest book kept at the lookout includes signatures of visitors from Reno; the Bay Area; San Diego; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio, Texas; and even as far away as Ireland.”Some lookouts like the privacy – they like being away and they don’t want to see anybody,” said Baender. “I’m just the opposite, I enjoy the PR. I think it’s fun. You meet fascinating people who have stories to share with you, and it makes the day go by.”Baender even gets visitors from the air, as glider pilots often buzz the station, waving hello as they soar by.But while the visitors and the awe-inspiring view can be diversions, neither Baender nor the volunteers at the Martis Peak lookout can be distracted long from their primary job: keeping the area safe from the threat of wildfire.SidebarsHow to volunteer:Interested parties should call Captain Dean Levonian at (530) 582-9471 to learn about opportunities to help at the Martis Peak fire lookout and the CDF Volunteers In Prevention program.Brief history of the lookout:• The Martis Peak fire lookout was built in 1914 and used on-and-off until around 1986 when it fell into disrepair. Many colorful characters staffed the lookout during that time, including Frank “Waddles” Maher, a cigar roller and circus tumbler by trade who spent 30 summers there, retiring in 1940. Maher was known for cooking up fresh bread and “rice Spanish” for hungry visitors at the lookout.• In 1996 the U.S. Forest Service agreed to let the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rebuild the lookout, staying true to it’s historic nature and using the same original materials in its construction.• Construction was finished in late spring of 1997 and the lookout was staffed on July 1, 1997.• Since that time there have been five paid lookouts on Martis Peak over the years, with volunteers filling in usually three or four days per week.
Poem written about the lookout:On Martis Peak the sun shone bright,Fair Tahoe dreamed below;All space seemed filled with radiant light The summer’s afterglow.We stood one sunny autumn dayHigh up on Martis’ side,Forest and mountains spread awayIn panorama wide.To north, Mt. Lassen in its mightGuarded the vales below;To south fair Fallen Leaf gleamed bright’Neath Tallac’s cross of snow.
Mt Freel was tinged with rosy glowMt. Rose is opal drest;Tawny, canyoned with ancient snowStretched the Sierra crest.So fair the day, so vast the sceneWe paused in rapture still O’erlooking worlds of forest green,Lake, mountain, vale and hill.A tiny hut was on a cragAbove the world so high,And o’er it waved a starry flagIn greeting to the sky.-excerpt from “On Martis Peak” a poem written by Mina L. Humiston and dated July 11, 1934. The complete version can be read in the scrapbook kept by Rick Baender at the Martis Peak fire lookout.