More than six decades after transitioning to newer methods, Pennsylvania is returning to a tried-and-true approach toward combating forest fires: fire towers. The state plans to replace up to 25 existing towers and to build two new ones by summer 2017. Fire wardens and volunteers will staff the towers during the height of fire season, typically March through May.
The return to fire towers may seem anachronistic in this era of aerial surveillance and cell phones, and the state plans to continue using those methods of detection as well. But officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages 2.2 million acres of state forests, say towers are as reliable and as practical now as when they were first built, at the dawn of the 20th century.
Pennsylvania’s history mirrors that of most other parts of the United States, with the preponderance of towers built prior to and during the Great Depression then gradually phased out by the 1970s. Across the country, fire towers fell out of use as more commercial pilots were available post World War II to perform surveillance. In New Hampshire, only 16 of the dozens of towers built in the early 20th century remain standing today.
Recently, however, Pennsylvania officials have had an increasingly difficult time meeting their needs with aerial surveillance. Fewer companies provide aviation work, says Mike Kern, who leads Pennsylvania’s forest fire protection division for DCNR. Among the companies that do, most are booked well in advance, making it tough for pilots to get in the air on short notice.
“We still use aviation, but the aviation costs and the cost of insurance for those companies has made fire towers more economically feasible and useful,” Kern says. In 2014, the state took an inventory of its standing towers—50, in addition to a few federally owned towers within the Allegheny National Forest and a few others owned privately—to prioritize which ones will be replaced. Most are in rough shape, although about two dozen are still in use, primarily in the northern part of the state, where airports are farther apart and cell service is spotty. Once bids come in and DCNR determines exactly how many towers it will replace, those structures will be demolished and rebuilt, and two new ones will be raised in locations where towers once stood. Construction is scheduled to start in the spring.
“In spite of all the technology that is available, having trained personnel in fire towers is the best tool we have,” says Keith Argow, the chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a national organization that promotes the history, preservation, and use of fire towers. “They are a symbol of forestry.”
More than a symbol, they’re often the most reliable method. “There are some days that it could be really windy,” Kern says. “You can get someone in a tower but not necessarily in plane. Fire detection relies on fire towers, aviation, and people on the ground. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.”