'We are eyes on the forest': Volunteer spotters help squelch wildfires before they turn destructive

Meet some of the volunteers who spend months atop lookout peaks in some of California's most lush forests looking for tell-tale signs of infant wildfires.

SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. -- Standing atop a lookout in the San Bernardino National Forecast, the sweeping view is akin to another day in paradise.

"You don't get to see a view like this every day," says fire lookout volunteer Dave Aprile. "It's just a wonderful place to be."

But for Aprile, this sight is pretty routine. 

"If you're here for a long time, you get really familiar with what's around you," he said.

Aprile is a volunteer fire lookout for the Southern California Mountains Foundation. Part of his job is stopping fires in the San Bernardino National Forest while they’re small, using old-school technology.

"This is called the Osborn," Aprile says while showing off the measuring tool. "It was developed in 1930, and nobody's been able to improve on it since then. But this is what we use when we see a fire."

After pinpointing smoke or fire, the Osborn allows observers to determine its distance from the observational tower, giving firefighters important data to key in on its location.

Once a fire is spotted, volunteers radio in its position so crews can get out to it.

"Our job is to look for smoke, and that's what we do all day long," Aprile said.

Volunteers like Dave know the destructive power of fire.

"My sister had her house burned down in the 2003 fire up here in Cedar Glen," Aprile said.

Thankfully, his sister received a lot of help after the fire and had her house rebuilt.                     

"I wanted to do something to try to pay back the service, the Forest Service, for all their help," Aprile said. "And so my wife and I decided we'll do volunteer work here in the tower."

The Southern California Mountains Foundation operates seven different lookouts in the San Bernardino National Forest. Its oldest tower has sat high atop Keller Peak for the last 95 years.

"We rebuilt and refurbished the lookouts," says Pam Morey, the fire lookouts coordinator for the Southern California Mountains Foundation. "What we do is we catch the fire when it's probably a $100 fire, not a $100,000 or $1 million fire. So we are eyes on the forest. We take our job very seriously, and we love it."

The lookouts are staffed during daylight hours seven days a week from May until December. And in an era where technology does so much, those with the lookouts say they still have a place out in the forest.

"You've got satellites, but the fire has to be huge for the satellite to pick it up," Morey said. "And if somebody's in an area where they have no cell reception, they can't report it. So we can because we're up here, and we see them."

The lookouts are also an important education tool, with volunteers welcoming visitors into the towers.

"They're surprised at, you know, the equipment that's up here and how to use it," Morey said. "We always like to show that off."

They're showing off some living pieces of history up on some of Southern California’s highest peaks.

"I love these wood buildings; they're just they're amazing," Morey said. "And knowing that I can stop a fire when it's an acre rather than 10,000 acres; I feel like I've given back to the forest that's giving me the joy of being able to live in it and enjoy what we have up here."