One Tank Trip: Fire Towers

For this weeks one tank trip we went up a stairway to almost heaven through the mountain states unique fire lookout towers.

Standing tall and proud, the towers that are left are enveloped in a rich history and even better views.

“Fire towers are a touchstone to our past. They’re also a link that the public has to the ongoing work and the past work of fire control and the history of West Virginia,” Rob Whetsel, north zone archeologist for the Monongahela National Forest said.

The towers did not start out as cozy as they might seem now. It was not until the early 1920s that a cab was built for the lookouts at the top.

But cab or no cab, after getting to the top, the firemen had one purpose, and that was fulfilled statewide.

“The fire towers were put there to protect against these conflagrations that were really causing problems in West Virginia,” Whetsel said.

With the towers spanning across the state, the forest they saw overlapped, and with radios and telephones, the men in the towers were able to work together to locate every single spark.

“Fire towers don’t work alone. They have to have other fire towers to help them. So there’s a whole thing called triangulation,” Whetsel said.

They would do this by using date from three different towers. Using a large dial in the middle of the tower, they would send in the direction of the fire and after three data points, fire wardens could locate exactly where the fire was and send a crew to put it out.

And although it might seem exciting and fast paced, working on the tower was quite the opposite.

“Life in a fire tower was pretty solitary for the most part. A lot of it would be scanning the horizon looking for smoke. That is what there job was to do and to report those,” Whetsel said.

After about thirty years of using these fire towers, the forest service pushed to use airplanes to spot because they were more efficient and the covered more land. A second reason that these towers went out of use was because the forest that they were protecting grew to block the view for many of the towers.

Even though we may not use the towers to keep our forests from burning anymore, keeping them upright and safe is more important than ever.

Aside from the history, being on top of these towers is an experience in of itself, and one you wont forget anytime soon.

Whether you want to learn about West Virginia’s history or just want to check out the mountain state from a different perspective, get that tank of gas and head to your nearest fire tower.


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