By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER and The Associated Press
The last 22 wildfire watchtowers maintained by the state of California will fall victim this year to the state's record budget shortfall and to modern technology.
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection won't staff the lookouts this summer, in order to save $700,000, nearly half the $1.7 million it must trim from its $500 million budget.
CDF's Tuolumne-Calaveras Ranger District has no affected towers. The Stanislaus National Forest's four towers will be staffed during fire season.
The state towers could be staffed temporarily during lightning storms or during periods of high wind and low humidity that produce extraordinarily high fire danger, said CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill.
The department hopes to reopen at least some of the lookouts if money again becomes available, as was the case after the towers were shuttered for the 1992 and 1993 fire seasons during the state's last big budget crisis.
Residents and officials near the lookouts are lobbying lawmakers to keep them open. Last year Gov. Gray Davis found emergency money to open 10 additional towers temporarily during what was projected to be an extreme fire season.
But the decades-old towers have become increasingly redundant.
Most fires now are spotted from airplanes, by residents in what once were isolated wildland areas, or are called in by passers-by on their cell phones. Just 7 percent of fires were first spotted from the state's towers in 2001, the last figures available but that's still 415 fires, compared to the 5,808 fires first spotted by others.
The one CDF Tuolumne-Calaveras unit tower that serves both counties, located on Blue Mountain between West Point and Arnold, is not staffed full-time but only on high risk days, said Fred McVay, Tuolumne County fire warden and chief of CDF's Tuolumne-Calaveras unit.
McVay said the closed towers will probably begin operating the same way.