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Close call for one historic telephone box

Cerro Pelado lookout (L-4 model cabin), built by the CCC around the time telephone call boxes were installed on the forest. Forest Service photo.

The Cajete Fire burned 1,412 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest in June 2017, narrowly missing a historic telephone box installed in 1932. Located atop Los Griegos Mountain at 10,095 feet, the phone box was one of several patrol points used by fire lookouts to report fire starts in the East Fork area of the Jemez Ranger District.

Archaeologists Gilbert Burkman and Kandi Voss of the Santa Fe National Forest hiked to the site to check on the relic, still mounted to a limber pine tree. A porcelain wire insulator, stained black by decades of exposure, and a short section of telephone line remain intact. Streaks of red fire retardant and blackened spots nearby show how close the historic site came to becoming just a memory. The stroke of good luck was unplanned because the phone box had not been designated for special protection.

The Cerro Pelado lookout tower is a mile away, and back in the day lookouts were required to hike to the Los Griegos ridgeline twice a day to better survey the area. Remote phone boxes enabled lookouts to contact the original Jemez Ranger Station nearly eight miles down canyon.

Archaeologist Gilbert Burkman at the Los Griegos telephone box site. Photo courtesy of Cajete Fire Public Information Team.

Phone lines were suspended in trees and connected to sawmills and other locations where volunteer firefighters could be mobilized swiftly. The improvement in radio communications during the 1940s rendered forest phone boxes obsolete, and the use of helicopters in the 1970s transformed required patrols from Cerro Pelado to Los Griegos into optional hikes for hardy lookouts.

If you would like to learn more about the fire lookout history of the Santa Fe National Forest check out this manuscript, recently compiled by Barbara Zinn.