October 19, 2010

Eyes in the Sky

Forest Ranger Neil Bilodeau demonstrates how an Osborne Fire Finder is
used to pinpoint a distant fire from the Warner Hill Fire Tower in Derry.
Union Leader Correspondent

century ago, the state was in the process of organizing a network of 85 fire towers — the best line of defense in spotting and fighting forest fires that were threatening the vital logging industry of that era.
Today there are 15, which are manned by part-time, on-call staff — and the call only goes out on days when
 the fire danger is greatest. 
On a clear day you can see Boston on the horizon.
That, according to State Forest Ranger Neil Bilodeau, is a sign of economic times. 
“The towers are still an active part of fire prevention around the state,” said Bilodeau, who works for the state’s Division of Forest and Lands. 
Last year was the first year the state reduced the full-time lookouts to “on call” positions. 
While there is no plan to phase out the remaining 15 active towers, budget considerations have changed the way the state forest bureau spots fires. 
“Fire towers are still our primary means of detection. 
Some have questioned why we don’t just replace towers with modern means of detection, such as aircraft. We have three air patrol that are on contract with the state, and we use them in conjunction with the towers on high danger days, basically filling in the gap. But because they’re moving, they can’t stay over one spot for an extended period. That’s the benefit of the tower and having a stationary watchman looking at the same 360-degree view all day long,” Bilodeau said. 
Warner Hill Tower in Derry is known to most in the fire sector as “Wally’s Tower,” given the longtime service of firefighter Walter “Wally” Eaton, who for 20 years has been the sole sentinel at the East Side tower. 
He mans the tower on Class 3 fire days, which means the three factors that heighten fire danger — temperature, relative humidity and wind — are present. 
“Unfortunately, when the state reduced staffing and eliminated the full-time positions, a lot of our watchmen had to find other work. Most of these guys, like Wally, have a long history of fire service and so they will pretty much make themselves available when needed. But it’s certainly not the way it once was.” 
Bilodeau said he grew up in the shadow of the Pawtuckaway tower in Nottingham, captivated by the idea that from 100-feet in the air you could see practically forever. 
“Actually, you can see the Boston skyline in this direction,” said Bilodeau, pointing toward the misty horizon south of the Warner Hill tower. “And in this direction, I believe you can see Mt. Snow in Vermont. Those peaks on the horizon there, that’s Mt. Uncanoonuc and Manchester,” said Bilodeau. 
“Wally’s Tower” is filled with tools of the trade, many of them time-worn relics of a bygone era. In the center of the watchtower sits a large metal contraption with a brittle, dogeared map affixed to the center, called an Osborne Fire Finder. Using azimuth coordinates, the tower lookout can pinpoint the geographical location of smoke at just about any vantage point from the tower, cross referencing maps and then triangulating the data and sharing that information with other lookouts, or fire station personnel. 
“The more towers we can get lines on to the smoke, the more accurate the fix is going to be in pinpointing the fire,” said Bilodeau. 
The state’s fire tower system was developed as a response to the heavy logging of the state’s forests and proliferation of “slash,” or logging brush, which would frequently catch fire from wood-burning trains used to haul timber from the woods. 
By the turn of the 20th century, the Appalachian Mountain Club was calling for action, working with the state’s Forestry Commission to establish the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and pressuring the powers that be to fund a network of fixed lookout sites. 
“Our towers were primarily an outgrowth of the logging companies and timberland association, which paid for a lot of these towers — it was a matter of protecting their stake in the logging industry,” Bilodeau said. 
During World War II, many of the towers went dark due to lack of manpower. The U.S. Forest Service recruited WOOFs (Women Observers on the Forest) to staff several N.H. 
towers, including Chocorua, Kearsarge North and Cooley Hill. During that time, Warner Hill tower was built up and used as a lookout for enemy aircraft, said Bilodeau. 
Although most of the towers were restored to full use again following the war, the economic crunch of the 1980s reduced the number of active towers from 22 to 14. All of them were shut down in 1983 due to lack of funding. By 1992, 16 stations were back in service full time — 15 run by the state and one, Redhill, was owned and operated by the town of Moultonboro, and still is. 
A few years ago the state Forest and Lands division launched Fire Lookout Quest program, to increase public awareness of the historic significance of the state’s fire towers, and to reinforce their continued function as the first line of defense in preventing forest fires. 
“People can plan to hike to any one of the 15 towers still in use, and once they’ve visited at least five of the towers, they earn a Tower Quest patch, and a certificate of recognition,” said Bilodeau. 
“If the budget was not an issue, the towers would still be staffed full time — I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in our agency that feels differently,” said Bilodeau. 
“But right now it’s just not going to happen. Having an on-call staff is better than what happened in the 1980s — they could have shut them down completely again, but they realize what a valuable service they provide.” 

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