The Volunteer Fire Lookouts Of Maine’s York County

David N. Hilton reports on a special breed of volunteers who staff lookout towers to safeguard their neighbors from fire.


The first forest fire lookout at Squaw Mountain in Little Squaw Township, ME, was placed into service on June 10, 1905. William Hilton of Greenville, then 19 years old, was the first observer, or “watchman,” as he was called. The first entry in the log kept by Hilton reads: “Commenced work...


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Telephones were the only means of communications between 1909 and 1949. By the end of this period, the Maine Forest Service (MFS) owned and maintained a system of 1,728.5 miles of telephone lines tying together the lookout towers and Chief Warden Headquarters. The peak development of the telephone network was reached in the early 1950s with approximately 3,500 miles of ground and metallic circuit lines. After that, many of the lines were gradually abandoned with the increase of radio communications.

Many difficulties were encountered by the MFS in establishing a radio network between the fire towers. The goal was to eliminate the thousands of miles of telephone wire in the woods. The map table and alidade made up the fire-finding equipment.

Most towers use a standard map, taken from a larger master state map, and are set up on a true-north basis, at a scale of one-half inch to the mile. The map contains azimuth circles of the surrounding towers. They are useful in pinpointing a smoke by cross azimuths. Every feature seen from the tower helps the watchman make an accurate report.

An azimuth is the reading in degrees taken across the map table after lining up on a smoke. Azimuth is the horizontal angle from true north to the smoke sighted. The azimuth is obtained by sighting across the alidade’s cross hairs to the smoke. After the sighting is taken, the smoke is somewhere along this line, as the azimuth gives direction, not distance. If another tower can see the same smoke, and a second azimuth is given, the point at which the two lines cross on the map is the fire’s location. If a second cross is not available, the watchman must then use his knowledge of the landscape to be able to determine the fire’s location.

Many towers also use a grid system to help locate a fire’s location. The system is used with U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map sheets. Each quadrangle sheet contains the map of an area, consisting of 15 minutes of latitude and 15 minutes of longitude. Each map is named and also has a letter-number designation. Each row of quadrangles in an east-west direction is numbered, beginning with “1” on the western edge of New England and ending with “28” in easternmost Maine. In a north-south direction, each tier of quadrangles is designated by a letter, beginning with “A” in northern New England and ending with “Z” in southern New England.

Each quadrangle is further broken down into nine blocks, each designated by a number only. These blocks are then broken down into 25 small sections, also designated by a number. Many fire departments and town wardens carry these maps of their areas so they can coordinate with the towers via radio about the smoke locations.

In the early 1980s, there were many threats to close the fire towers across the state. This spawned many letters to congressmen and state officials from concerned citizens and firefighters statewide, but the State of Maine Forest Service closed its system of fire lookout towers in July 1991. This meant that the only forest fire detection would come from two or three airplane flights each day, if the fire danger was high.

A group of firefighters and others in York County sought permission from the state to staff the Agamenticus tower in York during the fire season. Dave Hilton and Chris Balentine of York began the program in July 1991. Their presence at the Mount Agamenticus tower in York prompted others to open the Mount Hope tower in Sanford and the Ossipee Hill tower in Waterboro later in the season. Thus the volunteer fire watchers of York County were born.

The volunteers are proud to be going into their 10th year of service. They boast spotting hundreds of brush and woods fires before anyone on the ground reported them. Other fires – involving houses, vehicles, chimneys and boats – have also been reported from the towers. Thousands of hours have been spent at the towers, waiting, watching and maintaining. This also lets the public visit the towers. They offer commanding views of Maine, New Hampshire and, from Agamenticus, parts of Massachusetts. All towers are open to the public when the watchmen are there.

There is also a move afoot to preserve the history of the Maine Forest Fire Lookout towers. Dave Hilton has published a 200-page book about their history, containing over 210 photographs of the Maine towers and many facts, stories and listings. If anyone is interested in purchasing a book or has any old pictures or info about the towers, please contact: Forest Fire Lookouts of Maine, 8 Camden Ave., York, ME 03909.