Mt. Tamalpais fire lookout opens

June 30, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
There was a high fire danger warning issued for Marin County on Monday. Despite all of the new tools that are available to fight fires, one of the most relied-upon techniques in Marin County couldn't be simpler. It's just a guy on a perch. ABC7 took at look at the fire lookout's first day on the job.

On the east peak of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County relies on a pair of eyes in a lookout tower.

"This is my work station in the middle, Firefinder, the kitchen over here, dining table and bed. That's it," says Michael Anderson, the fire lookout.

In a 13 by 13 foot room, fire lookout Anderson has to distinguish between a puff of fog and what could be the beginning of a major wildfire.

"You need to look away and then look back because what you're looking for is a condition that's changing," says Anderson.

Monday is the first day of an assignment of solitude that will last until mid October.

"It's probably one of the most serious years in maybe a decade. It's been extremely dry," says Anderson.

The wildfires in Santa Cruz County caught the attention of firefighters, in Marin County because the two share very similar climates and fuels.

"We haven't had a major fire on Mt. Tamalpais since 1929, and in the watershed since 1945, so it's in a pretty overgrown, decadent artificial state right now," says Battalion Chief Tim Thompson.

When it's calm down below, it can get pretty brutal up top with winds up to 85 miles per hour in July and temperatures dipping into the 30's in October.

From 2,577 feet above sea level, Anderson can see as far north as Fort Bragg in Menocino County, and as far south as Half Moon Bay. He could see this fire in Healdsburg burning, but his primary responsibility is Marin County, especially the remote areas. Many parts of Mt. Tamalpais State Park are above the fog, and conditions up there are very dry.

"This spins around here and you look through the hole there," says Anderson explaining how he can find a fire with an Osborne Firefinder. It's an ancient navigational device put here in 1937.

Anderson is an architect who designs Japanese tea houses in the off season.

"And you can pinpoint it down to about a tenth of a mile accuracy," says Anderson.

These days, cell phone users usually make the first call, but firefighters depend on Anderson to confirm its location and wind direction. His job up here is becoming an occupation of the past, but Marin County still relies on this 71-year-old tower to keep it safe.