Guardians of the mountains: San Diego’s elite fire lookouts

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SAN DIEGO -- Their office is about 6,200 feet above sea level, an area so remote in San Diego County that only a handful of people have access to it.

Volunteers with the Forest Fire Lookout Association call it High Point Tower. It provides panoramic views of all of San Diego County.

They are specially trained to scan hundreds of square miles of terrain looking for "smokes" -- traces of smoke that might signal a fire. Their job is to report it quickly so resources can be dispatched and the fire can be contained before it can turn into a fast-moving and destructive blaze.

"The fact you can identify it quickly and resources are dispatched because of your identification, it's a great sense of satisfaction, also incredibly important service to the community," said Ernie Cowan, volunteer with the FFLA.

Recently Cowan and fellow volunteer Leif Blensky gave FOX 5 special access to their eagle's nest, which is equipped with communications equipment, weather gathering tools, a stove and even a bed for overnight assignments.

"It might sound like a boring day standing all day long looking at the landscape but it's not, all in all the day goes by pretty quickly," said Cowan.

Cowan and Blensky are part of a group of about 100 volunteers who possess a unique set of skills that are crucial to fighting fires.

"Best part of the job is just knowing I'm doing something that helps my community and I like the forest, don't want to see the forest go away," said Blensky.

Blensky also mentioned they are always looking for more volunteers who will get two days of classroom training followed by three days of supervised work on one of the three towers that are still in operation around the region.

At one point there were 17, but most were shut down due to budget cuts in the '80s and '90s.

Even with fewer towers, there's always a need for more volunteers. If anyone is interested in participating visit http://ffla.orgĀ for more information.

Google Map for coordinates 33.363368 by -116.835579.

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