Fire towers make unique tourist attractions
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - During the spring and fall fire
seasons, spotters manning 73 towers built on high points across
West Virginia once used desk-mounted topographic maps and
triangulation devices to pinpoint blazes by line of sight and then
radio fire locations to headquarters.
Some tower-top cabins were equipped with cots and stoves and
served as the spotters' living quarters. Most had separate living
cabins adjacent to the towers' bases.
In the 1970s state and federal agencies began replacing the
tower-based fire spotters with airplane-riding spotters. By 1989,
the last of the fire towers were mothballed, and the state began
selling its towers for scrap.
Today, only 14 remain standing, according to Matt Dillon,
assistant state forester.
While state forestry officials don't maintain their towers for
public use and would prefer people stay away to avoid injuries and
vandalism, the Monongahela National Forest keeps two of its towers
open to the public, and the Jefferson National Forest welcomes
visitors at one.
Rising above a grove of mature red spruce at the 3,736-foot
south end of Backbone Mountain near Parsons, Olson Tower is the
state's oldest fire tower. Built by the West Virginia Conservation
Commission, the tower was turned over to the Monongahela National
Forest when the land on which it is perched was added to the newly
formed federal preserve.
The tower staircase, with several landings for catching breath
and taking in the sights, is open to the public, but the
observation cab at the top is not, and its entrance is locked.
Bickle Knob, the other Monongahela National Forest tower open to
the public, is located on a 4,008-foot promontory about 10 miles
northeast of Elkins. The observation cab at Bickle Knob has been
removed, but a railed observation deck has been installed at the
top of its metal staircase, giving sweeping panoramas of the Otter
Creek Wilderness and Shavers Fork.
In the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County, the Hanging
Rock Tower is an airy, window-lined wood-frame cabin built atop a
rocky ledge on a high point of Peters Mountain in the 1930s.
The Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club, whose members use
the site for annual migrating raptor surveys, took over the tower's
maintenance until the tower and a surrounding tract of land was
acquired by the Jefferson National Forest in 1983.
In 1996, vandals burned the lookout cabin, but the Forest
Service and volunteers rebuilt and reopened it the following year.
So far this fall, birders at Hanging Rock have spotted a record 44
bald eagles migrating past the tower, along with 3,222 hawks,
falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey.
From the tower, visitors have sweeping views of Monroe County
farm country, the Greenbrier Valley, the Potts Creek Valley and the
Mountain Lake Wilderness, which sprawls into Virginia.
Six of the state's remaining fire towers have been placed on the
National Historic Lookout Register, a list of towers earmarked for
preservation and restoration.
They include the Mann Mountain Tower in Fayette County; Panther
Tower in McDowell County; Tams Mountain Tower in Raleigh County;
Thorny Mountain Tower in Pocahontas County's Seneca State Forest;
Point Mountain Tower in Webster County, at 100 feet the state's
tallest fire structure; and Bald Knob Tower at Cass Scenic Railroad
State Park, the state's highest lookout at 4,860 feet.
"On days when it's too windy for aircraft, we'll still send
foresters or rangers out to some of the towers to look for fires,"
Dillon said. "Many of them are still used as antenna bases or
repeater stations for our communications gear.
"Aircraft detection has worked out well," Dillon said. "The
forest fire problem has also been helped a lot by the advent of all
the 911 systems across the state and increased public support for
reporting fires to them."
Information from: The Charleston Gazette,

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)