Eyes on the Forest:
Link to photo album at bottom of page
The fascinating story of forest fire lookout towers in the
According to the Annual Report of the Society for the Protection of NH Forests, the spring of 1903 was very dry. Little rain fell for forty days from April 9 to June 7, 1903. Extensive logging on the steep mountain sides left a thick layer of branches and flammable material that dried out in the sun and wind. Numerous fires were ignited by wood or coal burning trains, clearing of land, lightning and human carelessness. Ineffective detection and a lack of communications allowed fires to get big before they were reported.
After 1903, something had to be done to reduce the threat from forest fires. Detecting fires became an urgent priority. A private corporation was the first to react. The Mount Pleasant Hotel Company built the first lookout in the White Mountains around 1904 on the already blackened summit of
In 1909 the State of
In 1910 the NH Timberland Owners Association (NHTOA) became one of the most important partners in fire detection and protection. They assessed their members a penny an acre for fire detection on a million acres in the northern third of the state. NHTOA built several lookouts including Sugarloaf, overlooking the Nash Stream watershed,
In 1911 the Weeks Act was signed by President Taft. Section 2 of the Weeks Act authorized the Federal Government to cooperate with states in fire control efforts and proved to be a big impetus for fire lookout and telephone line construction. One of the primary purposes of the Weeks Act was protection of forested headwaters of navigable streams from fires. Today we think of the Weeks Act primarily as the legislation authorizing Federal acquisition of private land, from willing, sellers, to create National Forests in the eastern half of the
Starting in 1911, the NHTOA, the State of
The 1938 Hurricane blew down thousands of acres of forest and many sections of the
During World War II the fire lookout system faced a shortage of men. Women ably took over the role that men had held prior to the war. There is a chapter in Iris Baird’s book “Looking Out for Our Forests” that describes the WOOFS or Women Observers on the
Barbara Mortensen, (WOOFS) Women Observers on the
Forest on Pine Mountain Lookout near Gorham in WW2
After World War II, the use of airplanes for forest fire detection started to replace fire lookouts. Aircraft had the advantage of being able to cover a larger area and could be employed only when needed. Aircraft and pilots were readily available after the war and planes and fuel were relatively cheap. The disadvantage of aircraft was that they cover a given area for a few minutes on each flight and might miss a fire that started after the airplane left the area. Depending on weather conditions, stationary lookouts may sometimes be surrounded by clouds or a thick haze with limited horizontal visibility. Fire detection sensors (other than lightning detection systems) have not proven reliable and space based systems are still under development. Cameras are being tested in other parts of the country and according to promotional sales literature they outperform human lookouts.
The State of
Three examples of State of
The history of NH Fire Lookouts could easily fill several books. There are many personal stories about the lookouts, both men and women, who kept watch from the summits of our mountains. There are probably thousands of photographs of the lookouts and numerous plans and design specifications. . Several maps, especially those made after the 1938 Hurricane show the locations of fire lookouts and the trails that reached them. Hopefully this short introduction will encourage further research and awareness of the historic importance of fire lookouts in the
Classification of Lookouts
Primary Lookouts were stationed on high peaks with excellent views of the surrounding terrain. Their duties were solely to discover, locate and report forest fires. Examples were Carter Dome,
Secondary Lookouts were on less prominent peaks, with shorter views, and staffed only during high risk periods. Examples are Lonesome Ridge, Osceola and West Royce.
Emergency Lookouts were used on strategic points during periods of high fire danger, such as areas with hazardous fuels from the 1938 Hurricane,. They were connected by telephone lines to a central dispatcher. Examples would be
The Central Dispatchers primary function was to communicate with lookouts, plot fire locations and order up fire control resources. Plotting, also known as platting a fire location, is done by obtaining the intersection of two or more bearings from different lookouts of the smoke.
Baird, Iris and Chris Haartz. A Field Guide to New Hampshire Firetowers. Department of Resources & Economic Development (DRED), NH Forests & Lands. Pub. For the Third Annual Conference of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, Weeks State Park, Lancaster, NH 8 Aug. 1992. 52 pages. Baird, Iris. Looking Out for Our Forests: The Evolution of a Plan to Protect New Hampshire’s Woodlands From Fire. Baird Backwoods Construction Publications, Lancaster, NH, 2005, 114 pages. US
Brown, William R.
Our Forest Heritage: A History of Forestry and Recreation in
Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Second Annual Report. 1903.
A Field Guide to New Hampshire Firetowers. Department of Resources & Economic Development (DRED), NH Forests & Lands. Pub. For the Third Annual Conference of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, Weeks State Park, Lancaster, NH 8 Aug. 1992. 52 pages.
Baird, Iris. Looking Out for Our Forests: The Evolution of a Plan to Protect New Hampshire’s Woodlands From Fire. Baird Backwoods Construction Publications, Lancaster, NH, 2005, 114 pages.
Looking Out for Our Forests: The Evolution of a Plan to Protect New Hampshire’s Woodlands From Fire. Baird Backwoods Construction Publications, Lancaster, NH, 2005, 114 pages.
NH Division of Forest and Lands maintains a fire tower website: