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Telling the story of 200 years  of White Mountain History

                               Fire Lookouts 
                   

Eyes on the Forest: White Mountain Fire Lookout Tower History   by David Govatski 

                    Link to photo album at bottom of page

           
The fascinating story of forest fire lookout towers in the White Mountains starts in 1903. That is the “Year that New Hampshire Burned”.  Over 10% of the forests in the White Mountains burned and over 500 forest fires blackened a quarter million acres in NH during that dry spring. The threat to people, homes, hotels and other businesses was great. Fear, along with smoke and ash was in the air.

            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.

            In Bethlehem on May 14th a fire that started in the Gale River area burned five miles towards Twin Mountain. A cluster of fires surrounded Whitefield on May 15th.  A fierce fire set by the noon express train threatened Intervale on May 24th.  On May 28th a large crew of men fought a raging fire on Mount Stickney that threatened the Mount Pleasant Hotel and the Zealand Valley.  Ash and cinders were falling on hotel verandas. Berlin was surrounded by forest fires on June 3rd and smoke from the big White Mountain fires spread over southern New Hampshire. New Hampshire was not alone; forest fires in Maine, Vermont and the Adirondacks blackened over a million acres.

            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 Mount Rosebrook. The log structure overlooked the Zealand Valley and Bretton Woods and probably stood only 20 feet tall. It was guy wired to boulders to keep it from blowing over. A telephone line provided communications to the hotel and the lookout was on duty during times of need. A system of hiking trails provided access to the lookout. Little remains of the Mount Rosebrook Fire Tower today other than guy wires and the remains of the roof that is covered with leaves and spruce needles.  The Rosebrook Lookout was replaced in 1929 by the steel Mount Hale Lookout Tower.  It was hauled up by tractor using the now abandoned Hale Brook Trail.



           
In 1909 the State of NH started to fund fire lookout construction. The first lookouts were crude affairs often made with logs cut at or near the site such as the first tower on Mount Magalloway. Other lookout sites were on the summits of Mount Moosilauke and Mount Agassiz where hotels or viewing platforms and phone lines already existed. The AMC Madison Springs Hut had a fire lookout that perched himself on the rocks of Mount Madison to see the surrounding forests. Carter Dome had a progression of lookout towers, with the earliest one a crude log tripod that may have been built for the Glen House Hotel. A series of improved towers were built on Carter Dome culminating in the steel tower built by the US Forest Service in 1924. It had a 14’ x 14’ cab. The lookout had a camp a mile below the summit at Carter Notch that the AMC later used as a Hut.          

            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, Pine Mountain in Gorham and Osceola near Waterville Valley. One of NHTOA’s most interesting designs was a three sided peeled spruce structure built on Cambridge Black Mountain in 1914. 

            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 United States. But cooperative fire control was on everyone’s mind after the disastrous fires of 1910 in Idaho.  Three million acres of forest burned and 85 people died. Improved fire control was deliberately included in the original legislation by Lancaster native John W. Weeks.

            Starting in 1911, the NHTOA, the State of NH and the US Forest Service cooperated to develop a system of fire lookouts with overlapping coverage in the White Mountains. Dozens of lookouts were constructed and hundreds of miles of phone lines were installed. Fire towers used a variety of materials including steel, masonry, wood frame and treated timber construction. Some towers had a cab with a catwalk around it to allow better visibility.

             The 1938 Hurricane blew down thousands of acres of forest and many sections of the White Mountain National Forest were closed to public use because of the high fire hazard.  Several new lookouts, guard stations, trails and roads were constructed by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) at this time. The concrete foundation of the lookout on the summit of Mount Garfield is a stark reminder of that period. (Incidentally the outhouse for the Garfield Lookout is still standing and is a short distance north of the summit hidden by balsam fir trees. )

            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 Forest. The role of women as lookouts was considered a vital part of the defense effort. The WOOFS were also trained as aircraft spotters. Today women continue to be employed as lookouts and we think nothing of it but 70 years ago, it was a different story.



    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 White Mountain National Forest phased out and removed many of its lookout towers after World War II. They developed aircraft patrol routes and contracted with local pilots.  Only three  federal lookouts  remain: Kearsarge North (Pequawket), Smarts Mountain on the Appalachian Trail near Lyme (formerly a State of NH Lookout),  and a greatly modified Mount Carrigain Lookout.  However, they are not in active service and function primarily for educational and recreational purposes. All three lookouts are worth visiting and have trail access to them.

            The State of NH continues to use a combination of fire lookouts, aircraft and even ground patrols in critical high fire danger areas. The State   has found that its’ system of fire lookouts is successful at detecting forest fires, keeping communities safer and burned acreages low. The state lookouts also provide an important opportunity to get the fire prevention message out to the public and help deter the illegal burning of debris without a permit. Budget cuts from the legislature sometimes threaten staffing and lookout repairs, especially after low fire years.

            Three examples of State of NH fire lookouts worth visiting in the White Mountain region are Mount Prospect in Lancaster (at the aptly named Weeks State Park), Milan Hill in Milan and Mount Magalloway in Pittsburg. Beginning  In 2010, the State of NH will be renting the fire lookout quarters on the summit of Magalloway.  When the program is finalized, It will provide an exceptional experience for learning about fire lookouts.

            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 White Mountains.

 

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, Cherry Mountain and Pine Mountain. The primary and secondary lookouts are protected from the weather with an enclosed cab. They are equipped with a sighting device called an Osborne Fire Finder with map and panoramic photos and binoculars.

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 Currier Mountain near Jefferson Notch and Hancock Spur near Lincoln.

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.


                   Click here for Fire Lookout Photos                 

 
References:

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.

Brown, William R.
 Our Forest Heritage: A History of Forestry and Recreation in New Hampshire.   NH Historical Society. Concord. 1958.

Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Second Annual Report. 1903. Concord.
   

 

 

 

  US Forest Service. White Mountain National Forest Maps. Especially the 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942 forest maps showing areas closed to the public after the 1938 Hurricane and the locations of lookouts and guard stations.

 

 

Forest Fire Lookout Association. The FFLA publishes a quarterly full color magazine called Lookout Network and was founded two decades ago to promote the history and preservation of fire lookouts. The FFLA funds lookout conservation projects including one on Red Hill in Moultonborough, NH in 2010. Red Hill is a municipally owned lookout south of the White Mountains. The FFLA web site is: http://www.firelookout.org/  

NH Division of Forest and Lands maintains a fire tower website:

http://www.nhdfl.org/fire-control-and-law-enforcement/fire-towers.aspx

 David Govatski of Jefferson retired from the US Forest Service as a Forester and Fire Management Officer and last served on the White Mountain National Forest. His first position in the Forest Service was as a fire lookout on the Devil’s Head Lookout on the Pike National Forest in Colorado in 1970. He is a member of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and a Board member of WhiteMountainHistory.org 

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