LONGVILLE, La. (AP) - Every day for more than 30 years, hundreds
of people passed by where Mary Morrow worked and probably didn't
realize it.
That's because Morrow worked in the Longville fire tower along
U.S. 171. Her office was 100 feet above the ground, a 7-foot by
7-foot room high among the trees, where she'd watch for smoke from
wildfires.
The tower, constructed a little more than 50 years ago, is set
to come down sometime in the next few weeks to make way for the
four-laning of the highway between Gillis and DeRidder.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development
acquired the tower from the Louisiana Office of Agriculture and
Forestry about three or four years ago in preparation for the
expansion, and has since turned it over to contractor Denton James
of Baton Rouge.
Morrow, 68, is part of a declining trend. With several tower
employees nearing retirement, Southwest Louisiana could see the end
of fire towers in the next year or two, said Jim Harris, District 7
Forester for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
District 7 includes Beauregard, Vernon and Calcasieu parishes.
Morrow could have retired when news came about a month ago that
it was time to vacate the Longville tower. Instead, she transferred
to the Gordon fire tower off La. 12 between Ragley and DeQuincy.
"I like the job - I've always liked the job," she said.
When Morrow started at the Longville tower on Dec. 1, 1972, she
was one of the first female fire tower workers. Her husband worked
away from home on pipeline construction jobs, so she needed a job
close to home to keep an eye on her six kids, ranging in age from
nine to 18 at the time.
"It was right next door," she said. "I could walk to work if
I needed to."
She earned $299 a month, which "bought the groceries and paid
the light bill."
Tower employees work solo in their booths, and Morrow said that
new employees either travel to a neighboring tower or are visited
by a veteran for training.
"It takes about two or three fire seasons - that's wintertime -
to really know where the hot spots are," Morrow said.
As for why she got into the business, proximity to home was one
reason. Another is the forestry industry's importance to her area.
"Forestry was something I saw come from nothing into
something," she said. "All of the countryside had been cut out
and they were trying to get it replanted. They succeeded."
Morrow was already familiar with the tower, too.
"I climbed the tower all my young life," she said, adding that
growing up, her friend's dad was the tower man.
When she first started, Morrow said wildfires raged more than
they do today. She estimates that 98 percent of fires then were
arsons.
Wildfires were even worse in the 1950s, Harris said.
"We had a real wildfire problem all over the state," Harris
said.
In 1951 in Calcasieu Parish, 253 wildfires caused 32,486 acres
to burn. In Beauregard Parish in 1952, more than 106,000 acres
burned that year, about one-sixth of the parish.
These outbreaks led to the towers' existence in Southwest
Louisiana, he said. The towers and their employees helped due to
quick detection.
"If a fire is set ... out in the middle of the woods and
nobody's around, it may burn for hours and nobody'll see it,"
Harris said.
Aerial detection will make up for the dismantling of the
Longville tower, Harris said. Tower employees have communicated
with crews of two planes that serve the area for fire detection.
As tower employees retire, more aerial crews will pick up the
fire detection duties, Harris said.
"I don't see us filling those (tower) jobs," he said.
Harris acknowledged that the shift to more aerial detection will
save the government agency funds.
Morrow and other tower employees work six days on and two off.
They usually work until 6 p.m. each day. During the busy season,
from mid-October to mid-April, they sometimes work longer, if fires
are bad.
Morrow said the first 20 years on the job were tougher, since
there were more wildfires. Not to mention her tower had no air
conditioning, and she was still raising her family.
Now the day-to-day is a little easier.
"I can crochet, I can do puzzles and can do anything ... but I
have to be constantly watching for smoke," Morrow said.
Morrow predicts this winter could be busier than the past few
years, since so many pine trees already are dropping needles, which
fuel fires.
Morrow said she intends to keep working in the tower, at least
until her 70th birthday in December 2004.
"It takes a special kind of person," said Jason Granger, fire
crew specialist and one-half of the Gordon tower's ground crew.
"Especially if nothing's going on," adds Ben Statum, fire crew
leader at Gordon.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)