Posted by: Bonnie Phelps | July 17, 2010

An Electric Day at High Point Tower

Thought the mountain residents might enjoy a day in the life of one of our High Point Lookout volunteers…yesterday was extraordinary.  Brad Ells

Forest Fire Lookout Association

An Electric Day in the Tower

Thu Jul 15, 2010 11:41 pm (PDT)

You may have heard about the lightning storms in the back country on Thursday, July 15. I was the guy in the tower today and want to share some lessons learned from this harrowing experience. I’ve asked Brad to post my photos on the webpage.

Now, about today’s events: It started as a beautiful, 80-degree cloudless morning, with birds singing, flowers blooming, and a few nice visitors. But by noon, cumulonimbus clouds grew over both Oak Grove/Chihuahua Valley as well as over the Los Pinos tower’s area. Los Pinos began calling in each of the lightening downstrikes he observed, then they began near High Point. The radio gradually turned into Dueling Towers as he and I took turns calling in our respective downstrikes with increasing rapidity.

The storm raged up the Oak Grove Valley, and the downpour blocked my view to the east. Next I heard the firefighters calling a smoke on the ridge just the other side of Oak Grove, only 5 miles from the tower, but I couldn’t see it! VERY frustrsating. Oak Grove eventually recorded a full inch of rain, but when the downpour thinned a little, it took major concentration with the binoculars to be able to discern the gray swirling smoke from the gray swirling rain. I could eventually see it and confirm the smoke and report its location. This became the Chihuahua Fire. They stopped it at just under an acre. You will be able to see the burn at 70.5 degrees.

Firtefighters next reported two fires burning near Ranchita and Volcan Mountain. These would normally be easily seen from High Point, but not today. As the storm moved north, I was trying to log all of the lightening strikes onto the Lightening Strike Record form, but there were so many, it was costing me precious binocular time. There were times when I just couldn’t keep up with logging all of the downstrikes, but my total at the end of the day was over 40.

The lightening REALLY hammered Riverside County. When the downpour thinned so I could see, I reported two smokes north of Aguanga, and one way out east.

This cell passed and there was about an hour before the next one came. But I learned that after a storm leaves all of that moisture, it creates water dogs. I am SOOOO glad that we learned about water dogs in our training. They were crawling out of every canyon within sight, and they looked exactly like the smoke from the half-dozen fires going on. I controlled myself from a smoke reporting frenzy, and noticed that each of the water dogs dissipated about four minutes after it started.

The next cell hit High Point hard. Lightening was striking on all sides except to the west; winds at 36 mph, thunder crashing, rain going horizontal, splattering the windows so I couldn’t see out. I used the squeegie that is kept with the broom and mop to clear the window exteriors – worked great.

Dispatch ordered all suppression and prevention personnel to extend their shift until 8PM. I didn’t want to weenie out on those guys, so I stayed too. As the second storm cell continued on to the nortwest, there was a small plume of smoke right there on Hwy 79 to call in.

I apologize for going on so long, but it is important to mention how cool, calm and professional all of the CNF responders and dispatchers were. The natural world was going berserk, and I was about to blow a gasket, but these folks handled it all very calmly and matter-of-factly, as if this happens every day. Their cool under fire was inspiring.

So, to sum up lessons learned:
1. Thunderstorms create brush fires. In High Point’s realm, 50 lightening strikes created 7 fires. That’s a 14% probability for each strike.
2. When lightening strikes come in great numbers, I suggest against logging each strike. Log them in groups or time frames, and keep the binos scanning the ground below those strikes.
3. Know that in certain storm conditions it will be impossible to see, and it will be frustrating and difficult to discern smoke from rain. Don’t take it personally or develop inferiority psychoses if the ground troops see a smoke before you do. (I’m on my second martini, and feel a lot better now).
4. Pack a windbreaker or light rain shell in your tower bag, regardless of the predicted weather or time of year.
5. When the storm passes, the devious water dogs come slinking out of the canyons. Water dogs dissipate in about 4 minutes. Smokes do not.

Carry on, my friends-

Scott McClintock

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: