By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
For more than 100 years, fire lookouts have kept a watchful eye on our forests. These towering structures have played an important part in wild fire detection on the Sequoia National Forest.
So, it seems only fitting that the intricate towers of metal and wood and seemingly endless stairs would be memorialized in an exhibit at the Kern Valley Museum entitled, “Eyes of the Forest – Sequoia’s Lookouts” featuring a series of original oil paintings by Kern River Valley resident Carla Aubrey.
Aubrey’s original art work will be on display at the Kern Valley Museum for a month-long exhibit beginning April 19 through May 19. Along with 28 of Aubrey’s original paintings, the exhibit will feature a collection of lookout memorabilia and materials that have been assembled by area residents who share an interest in preserving and restoring Sequoia Forest lookouts.
Forest lookouts have been perched atop high peaks across our nation’s forests. At one time, there were more than 8,000 fire lookouts across the United States. Today, there are fewer than 900. On the Sequoia National Forest, there once were 40 fire lookouts; but today, only nine remain, some destroyed by fire and others by Mother Nature’s harsh deterioration.
The earliest lookouts were quite primitive, a simple platform or tower built on a mountain top, cliff, high rock, or in a tree; virtually any high vantage point that would allow for an individual with a pair of powerful binoculars to keep a watchful eye out for fires.
During WWII, lookouts across the nation were used to watch for enemy aircraft.
One of the first lookouts on the Sequoia National Forest dates back to 1914 with a one-man shelter perched in a huge pine tree about 87 feet off the ground at the summit of Breckenridge Mountain. The Breckenridge lookout has changed in appearances since 1914, going from a tree stand to a wooden tower in 1930 to its current steel tower. The Breckenridge lookout is still in active service.
Aubrey’s paintings will feature both past and present lookouts of the Sequoia National Forest and her show will include original paintings of some of the more popular lookouts including the Needles, Bald Mountain, Breckenridge, Tobias Peak and Baker Point, considered to be “Kernville’s lookout.”
Aubrey said her interest in painting the forest’s lookouts was launched by her desire to help out with the Buck Rock Foundation, a non-profit organization that restores and preserves lookouts.
“I offered to paint the Needles lookout, so that they could use the painting as a raffle item,” Aubrey said. “I opened my mouth thinking there were only nine lookouts,” Aubrey said with a laugh. “Actually, there were 28 lookouts.”
While putting the elaborate structures onto canvas is in itself a task, Aubrey said the forest landscape that surrounds each lookout presents another challenge.
“Rocks,” Aubrey said. “I’m so tired of painting rocks,” adding that all of the lookouts are different and unique.
Despite those challenges, Aubrey is the first to say that the forest lookouts are worthy of recognition.
“The lookouts have a priceless value to our forest,” Aubrey said. “They really were the eyes of the forest. Technology may fail, but lookouts don’t.”
Aubrey is a long-time resident of the Kern River Valley and moved here in 1967. Her interests include a variety of artistic mediums including painting, jewelry making, crafts, sewing and crocheting. Her interest in oil painting evolved as she studied and learned oil painting techniques in 2010 under the guidance and coaching of renowned Indian portraiture artist Carol Wermuth.
Some of Aubrey’s first paintings were landscapes. She started her work on lookouts about 7 months ago.
Aubrey and her late husband, Barry, both worked for the U.S. Forest Service for many years. Carla worked at the visitor information center at Blackrock Station and Barry served as the patrolman at Cannell Meadow, fire engineer at Blackrock and the relief lookout at Bald Mountain.
Along with her art work, the 78-year-old Aubrey also volunteers at the Nuui Cunni Intercultural Center teaching crafts, and at the Forest Service assisting with the archiving of historic photo and slide collection.
Aubrey lives in the Weldon area, where she and her late husband built an energy efficient straw-bale home that is solar powered that sits on 80 acres where she enjoys panoramic views of the peaks that surround the Kern Valley.
The “Eyes of the Forest” exhibit is open to the public and runs from April 19 through May 19. The Kern Valley Museum is located at 49 Big Blue Road and is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Saturday, May 4, there will be a special celebration at the Museum to honor the fire lookouts and in recognition of Wildfire Awareness Week.
Fore more information about the “Eyes of the Forest” exhibit, contact the Kern Valley Museum at 760-376-6683 or at the website: www.kernvalleymuseum.org.