All Along The Fire Tower

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“If, in Virginia, we may point with justifiable pride to our fire control record, our ability to do so is due in no small measure to the effective service rendered by our Lookout Watchmen.” –
Handbook for Lookout Watchmen, 1948.

Fifteen pages long, the
Handbook for Lookout Watchmen is a quick read. Five of those fifteen pages are about operating the phone. But as far booklets go, this one is unique. It offers an unparalleled look into the past as it outlines the duties of being a fire lookout for the Forest Service. Not too long ago, it used to be that the responsibility of responding to potential fires was all analog. The job required constant observation by someone with a view and a way to call the proper authorities. As the ubiquity of cell phones grew, though, the need for dedicated fire tower operators declined.

At their peak, Virginia had around 150 towers scattered throughout its countryside. Most of these structures were 80 to 100 feet tall with a steel base and a seven by seven room, called a “cab,” on top. Others were shorter, with a cab that was 14’ square and room for bed and a stove, but those layouts were rare. Towers were often on private land leased to the government. When those leases expired, the land owners had to decide what to do with resulting structures. Some left them standing, but most landowners sold them off for scrap metal – up to 9 tons worth. Most of these towers disappeared over time. Today Virginia might have ten that are still standing and accessible. We located one of them a few weeks ago, and decided it was high time to go see it while we could.

Setting up a visit to a tower was not as easy as it might seem. I must have made over a dozen calls to the offices of various state and federal agencies asking about towers I had researched. At the time, I had no idea how many towers were out of service. Furthermore, I had assumed that any tower still standing was a viable option. After a few calls, I learned that most of the towers in Virginia were either now on private land, were unsafe to go up into, or both. Several Forestry Department folks informed me that there weren’t any towers that were still in regular use. The idea seemed to be in serious jeopardy.

But then I got a call from Rick Butler, an Area Forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry. He knew of a tower still in use in Appomattox county. He knew it quite well, in fact, because he goes up in it every few days as part of his duties. And sure, we could go up with him. A few days later Brian and I were on a two hour drive from Richmond to the small community of Vera, Virginia to meet Rick.

When we arrived in Vera, population 140, we spotted Rick in his F-250 with a Virginia Department of Forestry emblem on the side. Brian and I climbed into his truck, and Rick drove us all up to the tower, located at the end of a steep four-wheel-drive road. After a short, bumpy ride to the summit of a small mountain, we arrived at the base of the tower. We were about to climb 80 more feet into the air to a small, precarious box in the sky.

On paper, this idea seemed pretty good. As we stood their looking up at the cab, we began to second guess our decision. Up to this point it had even occurred to either of us that the hike to the top might be something to worry about. We both assumed that it would be like walking up any other tall building. I’ve been up a couple eight floor walk-up apartments and worried more about exhaustion than height. We were wrong.

The steel cage that held the stairs in place was so open, so exposed that it felt as we were ascending high dive platform. Toppling off the side felt possible, if not likely. Rick said we were lucky to be out on a calm day, and I believed him.

When we reached the top, Rick unlocked the door, and we entered the small seven by seven cab through the floor. Our new-found fear of heights subsided once inside. It was when Rick opened a few windows that we noticed the incredible view. You could see most of Appomattox county, he said, and well into many of the neighboring counties – up to 30 miles out. It was a beautiful sunny day, with only a small amount of haze on the horizon. It was easy to see how these towers could be so effective at spotting smoke. And it was also evident that any lookout worth his salt had to have a thorough and intimate knowledge of the land below.

Inside the cab, as with all lookout towers, the most prominent feature was a circular map table. It stood about chest-high in the middle of the space and was hard to miss. On the table was a gridded map and a device called an alidade, which rotated on a central point. An alidade resembles a gun sight without the gun, and allows the lookout operator to sight up the smoke with a degree reading on the table. There are notches on the top that corresponded to mileage. So when a lookout spotted smoke, he would call in something like “160 degrees, 10 miles away.”

Once an operator got an initial reading, they would network with other towers to triangulate the source of the smoke. After the first reading, a second tower close by would also take a reading, noting degree and approximate miles out. By this method the towers would triangulate the smoke to an area of about a square mile. At that point, it was up to someone on the ground to locate the fire and begin suppression efforts.

Dotted throughout the map were several green circles that Rick pointed out were other lookout towers. On this particular map there used to be five or six towers. They’re all gone now. Rick demonstrated the alidade for us as we talked about his work with the Forestry Department. After maybe 45 minutes it was time to head out. The climb down was perhaps more thrilling than the way up. Now we were looking down and could see exactly how much air was between us and the ground. Back on the sweet, sweet ground we returned to Rick’s truck and left the tower.

Rick Butler has been instrumental in keeping this particular tower standing and operational. The other few remaining towers most likely will not be as lucky. The day of the Virginia fire tower has already passed, and before too long they may all be gone. Throughout the rest of the country fire towers are popular hiking destinations.  Some are even available to the public to rent for the night.

For more information on fire lookout towers, visit the Forest Fire Lookout Association at www.firelookout.org and the National Historic Lookout Register at www.nhlr.org. We also want to extend a special thank you to Rick Butler for spending his day with us and taking us up in his tower. We would also like to thank Fred Turck of the Virginia Forestry Service for his insight and knowledge of all things fire-tower-related. Fred sent us some cool historic photos and the
Handbook
for Lookout Watchmen. If you’re in Richmond, swing by the shop and check them out.

-Rob

One comment

  • Awesome article. Not sure I could “ascend” to the top of one of those! I’m sure descending was just as terrifying. Good job.
    JF

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