Project Description

The Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest, in partnership with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, has re-activated the Chews Ridge Fire Lookout, and staffs it with local volunteers in order to provide firefighters with early fire detection, and to provide other assistance to the National Forest.  In many circumstances, catching a wild fire when it is still young can prevent it from becoming large and destructive.

This project gives volunteers the opportunity to help improve fire safety in Monterey County rural areas, the Ventana Wilderness, and the Los Padres National Forest.

Below is the project concept.  As the volunteer force evolves, some details may be subject to change.

  1. California Wildfires – When looking at a list of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history, one immediately sees that over half of them have occurred in the last 10 years. Discussions about the reasons for this include increased building in the wildland-urban interface, land management practices, and climate change.  The 2016 Sobranes Fire, which scorched Monterey County and the northern part of the Los Padres National Forest for 82 days, didn’t make the list but still smolders in the area’s memory.  With the wildfire threat apparently increasing, re-activating closed lookout facilities can be instrumental in providing increased public safety.
  1. The Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA) is a nationwide not-for-profit organization of volunteers whose mission is to preserve the country’s dwindling inventory of these historic icons of conservation and forestry. When possible, the FFLA gathers volunteers and resources to restore and sometimes operate formerly closed lookout structures.  The FFLA is divided into chapters, and Monterey County falls within the California-South Chapter, which has the benefit of experience in the highly successful volunteer operations of lookout towers for 10 years.
  1. Chews Ridge Lookout is located approximately 50 miles southeast of Monterey and approximately 30 miles west of Highway 101. It is accessed from Carmel Valley Road, and then south on Tassajara Road for 9 miles, most of which is unpaved and sometimes rutted and rough.  It sits at an elevation of 5,043 feet, and has been closed for about 29 years.  Many lookout towers were closed in the 80’s and 90’s when forestry budgets were trimmed and smog limited the towers’ effectiveness.

 The cab of the tower sits on a 12-foot steel frame and is accessed by a steep staircase of extremely narrow steps.  There is no running water, electrical service, air conditioning or heating inside the cab.  Additionally, there is no cell phone service, landline telephone or internet connectivity on Chews Ridge.  Communications are conducted with a battery-powered U.S. Forest Service radio.

  1. Volunteer Lookout Duties: Working in pairs, volunteers will monitor Forest Service radio traffic, perform methodic 360-degree scans with binoculars, report observed smokes or other emergencies by radio, and provide radio relay services for forest personnel.  They will document activities, submit reports, and conduct housekeeping of the lookout facility as needed. They may also conduct tours of the tower and provide information and directions to forest visitors. 

Volunteers must be prepared for large swings in weather conditions, and those who place more importance on their personal comfort than on the mission of the lookout should not apply.

  1. Shifts: Lookouts are generally on duty from 9am until 6 pm, unless weather or emergency conditions dictate otherwise.  Volunteers are asked to work at least one shift per month.  They are welcome to work more often if desired. 
  1. Formal Registrations and costs: Volunteers are required to enroll as U.S. Forest Service volunteers and to join the Forest Fire Lookout Association.  Dues for the FFLA start at $15 per year to cover administrative expenses.   Volunteers must also purchase uniform shirts.
  1. Training: Training for 2020 lookout tower duty will involve approximately 6 hours of classroom instruction conducted on Saturday March 7, as well as a joint session with returning veteran lookouts on Saturday, March 14.  These classroom sessions will be followed by a half or full day of in-tower training, scheduled at the trainees’ convenience.   Classroom topics include smoke recognition, radio procedures, reporting forms, emergency procedures, and volunteer guidelines. 
  1. Project Goals: This project aims to eventually:
    A.Staff the tower 7 days per week from May through November.
    B.Enroll 60 or more volunteer lookouts in order to form a robust and cohesive chapter of the FFLA.
    C.Promote officers to administer the chapter.
    D.Train the volunteers to a professional level of proficiency.
    E.Build a chapter website for public education and for scheduling shifts
  2. Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  Isn’t it boring?

A:  Yes, if you are dependent upon electronic device interaction.  No, if you are self-motivated, enjoy the outdoors, and see a lack of cellphone and internet connectivity as a peaceful 8-hour escape from electronic communications and social media. 

Q:  Do I need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get there?

A:  Not necessarily, but it helps as road conditions sometimes degrade.  SUVs and pickup trucks are no problem.  Small or sports cars with minimal wheel well clearance will not make it.  Since volunteers work in pairs, you can be scheduled to work with someone who doesn’t mind giving you a ride in their high clearance vehicle.

Q:  Why use volunteers for such an important function?

A:  After the government closes a program and removes it from the budget process, it is virtually impossible to restore it.  Additionally, the Forest Service does not have the personnel to staff the lookout.

Q:  Is there a restroom up there?

A:  Chews Ridge has a wilderness pit toilet with a fantastic view.

Q:  Can I bring my dog?

A:  No, for numerous reasons, and many things can go wrong.

Q:  Can I bring my music playlist?

A:  No.  We need your ears attuned to the Forest Service radio so that you don’t miss important messages.

Q:  If I sign up with my spouse, can we work together?

A:  Yes.  Experience shows that couples make good lookout teams.

Q: Why operate only during the day?  Wouldn’t you see fires better at night?

A: Lookouts very rarely see the flame at the base of a fire.  Because of the mountainous terrain in the backcountry, they see only the plume of smoke as it rises from behind ridgelines.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED, or have questions, please send an e-mail to FFLA Chapter Director Scott McClintock at and provide your name, phone number, and the area in which you reside.  Also, please advise if you have experience in skills that you would be willing to use for the developing chapter, including but not limited to:

– Amateur radio                                  – Painting (commercial)

– Banking                                             – Photography

– Carpentry/Cabinet making               – Printing

– Construction                                     – Public speaking

– Emergency dispatch                         – Retail sales

– Firefighting                                       – Social media

– First aid/CPR                                     – Structural engineering

– Forestry                                             – Training/Adult education

– Graphic design                                  – Website design

– Historian                                           – Welding/fabrication

– Law enforcement



Lookout Tower