From My WindowIssue Date: July 26, 2018
Fire Lookout Towers
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
I was driving from Peshtigo back to Halder last weekend after attending the funeral visitation for an old friend's mother. Since I was alone and not in a hurry, I took the slightly longer route west on highway 64 just for old time's sake. On my way through the tiny hamlet of Mountain, I noticed a sign for a fire tower.
That prompted the memory of a drawing I made as a very small child, which my parents saved for me. I created it after my Dad took me to visit a fire tower located near Peshtigo. I was probably four or five, but my childish drawing is recognizable, the stilt-like legs of the tower topped with the tiny "house" lookout. I was obviously very impressed with the visit and the towers still fascinate me.
As a teenager, I remember the one in Peshtigo as a destination for what was called either "snipe" or "yeti" hunting, depending on your current age. It was located just off a two-track "road" but I don't remember exactly where it was - seems like it was south of Peshtigo, maybe off Hale Road? Hopefully a Times reader will remind me " and I'd love to know what year the tower was taken down, since all I recall during my teen years was the concrete "stilt" foundations.
Since I am not aware of anything similar in Oklahoma, I'd sort of forgotten about fire towers. So after I got home, I dug into some websites and found there are maps showing the list of existing towers in northern Wisconsin. There are 52 of them listed (some of these may already be gone,) and several not far from Timesland were indicated on the map, including in Dunbar and Goodman. There's also one indicated close to Mosinee, near my new stomping grounds.
The web site I looked at said most of the towers were built in the 30's and early 40's. At one time there were 119 total in Wisconsin, later it was reduced to 72. Their purpose was to protect valuable timber resources, so as you may expect the remaining 52 or so towers are all located in the northern 2/3rds of the state. They were attended by a lookout during high risk fire times " especially, one web site said, early spring.
Towers are all rapidly being decommissioned now. I saw a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) bulletin that said the aging tower steel is deteriorating and the wood is in need of replacement. It would cost more than $25 million to address the maintenance needs. Some towers are being taken down, others secured by removing or covering the access ladder or stairs to prevent people from climbing the towers. The task of monitoring fires is being transferred to aircraft, satellites and other higher-tech methods " since the need to protect our forests and the wildlife in them still exists. Data cited said 90% of forest fires are now called in by private citizens using cell phones, sometimes even before a spotter could see the smoke of the fire.
The job of the spotter up in the lofty perch was to scan continuously for smoke and immediately sound an alarm if any was seen. Presumably this caused fires to be put out before they could cause wide-spread destruction " and if you have watched news coverage of the devastating fires sweeping the mountain states and the west coast, you can appreciate just how fast and how far these fires can spread under the right conditions. Of course the towers were never attended in winter " besides the fire danger being low, the conditions up in the tower would have been unbearable.
I don't recall seeing power lines to the towers, but maybe in later years they were electrified. But in the beginning, the watcher probably had a rudimentary desk and chair, a spotting scope or binoculars, flashlights, compasses to help ground crews locate the fire, and a radio. I bet they had a bucket for the necessities of life and carried up their own water and food. No internet to entertain them, so it was probably a pretty boring way to spend a day. I don't know if any of the towers had night watchers.
I read a fascinating interview with a woman spotter. She said the house on top was seven feet by seven feet, and she found the silent and solitary time there very relaxing except when a fire was spotted. She also said she was able to spot and report fires as far away as 40 miles under perfect weather conditions. She was disappointed when she lost her job as a spotter, but said in 2015 towers were only staffed on 17 total days.
The tower in Mountain has apparently been added to a register of historic towers, and is open to the public. A web site shows pictures from the lookout itself, so if you can handle 100 feet of steps you can go up and take in an amazing view. I am adding this to my "to do" list for an upcoming trip back to the Peshtigo area. One web site said there is a second tower on the register of historic towers, hopefully indicating it will be spared from dismantling, but it wasn't clear which one that was.
If you know where there is a fire tower, take a little kid there and show them some history, as we are losing our towers rapidly. Soon towers will become a rarity like the good old-fashioned Wisconsin red wooden barns.
Readers: If any of you know of someone who has a blacksmith anvil they are willing to sell please have them get in contact with me. I am trying to buy one as a gift.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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