Fire Towers in Vermont

In my first year after college I read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and had half a mind to get rid of all my possessions, head west, and get a job sitting in a fire tower. I imagined it a slow burn, whittling away the facade of self as I fused with the wilds. Sitting up above the canopy in a steel nest, Kerouac wrote: “Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said ‘God, I love you’ and looked up to the sky and really meant it. ‘I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.’” I wanted to taste those endless stretches of time and look out into the vast expanse of wildness to find myself reflected back in that clear mirror. But Kerouac had written elsewhere about the awful, mind-numbing tedium of sitting for endless hours waiting for nothing to happen. Plus it turned out my wistful imaginings were about 40 years too late. I tucked that yearning away as I started a job in western Mass teaching kiddos.

Stone fire tower at the top of Hubbard Park (Montpelier)

Why Build Fire Towers

Fire management was central to the US Forest Service’s mission from its founding in 1905. In its first publication, The Use of the National Forest Reserves: Regulations and Instructions (commonly called The Use Book), it laid out it plans for managing forest reserves. It also codified the mission of the nascent USFS by highlighting its three key objectives:

Protect the reserves against fire
Assist the people in their use [of the reserves]See that [the reserves] are properly used

One of the main purposes of The Use Book was to clearly define how the USFS would approach managing forests for fire. Its approach was clear: to detect and suppress fires as early as possible. Fire ecology was poorly understood, and fire was seen as a strictly negative force (controlled burns wouldn’t be used to support the USFS’s mission until the 1990s). We can see what the USFS saw as the benefits of detecting and fighting fires early: “Not only is the prevention of fire to the interest of all property owners, but men under obligation to fight fire because they hold permits will profit greatly by any means of reducing the work which they may be called upon to do. An organization which will put out a fire before it gathers headway may save them many days’ hard work.” In those early days of the USFS, “protecting the reserves against fire” meant prevention and suppression.

Camp of the forest planting crew on Camel's Hump, Spring 1915 (Brigham 1915)

At times it feels like The Use Book is a public appeal to justify the need for a USFS. The book makes frequent reference to the financial benefits of fire suppression, and begins its discussion of fire management:

“Probably the greatest single benefit derived by the community and the nation from forest reserves is insurance against the destruction of property, timber resources, and water supply by fire. The direct annual loss from this source on unprotected lands reaches many millions of dollars; the indirect loss is beyond all estimate. The burden of adequate protection can not well be borne by the State or by its citizens, much as they have to gain, for it requires great outlay of money to support a trained and equipped force, as well as to provide a fund to meet emergencies.”

Later on its list of things for fire fighters to remember when fighting fires, the first item is: “Protect the valuable timber rather than the brush or waste.” The rangers who patrolled USFS land were also the only official means of detecting fires. This was also their primary role: “Officers of the Forest Service, especially forest rangers, have no duty more important than protecting the reserves from forest fires. During dry and dangerous periods all other work should be subordinate. Most careful attention should be given to the prevention of fires.” Though not mentioned in The Use Book, a decade after its publication fire towers became a key tool for rangers to detect fires early. Sitting in their aerie, a lookout could see tens of miles in all directions, silently stalking the landscape for telltale smoke billowing up from the plains, prairies, and forests. A ranger’s responsibility shifted from everything to specialization. Once a lookout detected a fire, they would relay the location of the fire to ranger stations via heliographs (lots of cool photos here), carrier pigeons, and later telephones for others to fight the fire.

Ranger ready to release carrier pigeon with a fire message

Again, the USFS was clear from the outset (and reiterated 50 years later in the video below) that one of the chief concerns with fire management was protecting harvestable timber stands from fire damage. There was nothing as powerful as the Great Fire of 1910 (aka the Big Burn or Big Blowup) – which burned over 3 million acres across the northwest and killed 87 people in just 2 days – to motivate the rapid and widespread development of a national fire lookout system. Over 8,000 towers were built over the next 30 years (many in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps) to help prevent another Great Fire. In 1935, the USFS implemented the “10 AM Policy.” The goal was to prevent all anthropogenic fires and extinguish all fires by 10am the day after they were spotted. Eventually, the USFS shifted away from suppression and developed more sophisticated timber stand management practices, e.g. using controlled burns to reduce fuel accumulation (link). Reflecting this policy shift, most of the lookout towers were abandoned in the mid-1970s, and only about 2,000, mostly inactive, still stand today.

A century of fires in Vermont

Other than the occasional brush pile burn, fires really don’t seem play much of a role in our daily lives here in the northeast. In my 11 years in Vermont, I have yet to encounter a wildfire (maybe I’m just not trying hard enough), whereas growing up in California there were constant reminders of the ever looming threat of destructive and life-threatening fires. And yet the fire towers that dot the landscape speak to the anxiety previous generations of Vermonters felt over the potential of fires to burn both public and private property.

Fires in Vermont – 1909
Helen Ellett, the esteemed fire lookout, from the cover of Randy Kneers biography of her.

Helen Ellett, the esteemed fire lookout, from the cover of Randy Kneers biography of her.

In response to a catastrophic fire season in 1903, Vermont established a state forest service. This was followed up with the Vermont Forest Fire Law, which laid out the state’s approach to managing fires and gave power to the state forester and local fire wardens to inform citizens about fire hazards and hold them responsible for brush fires and any activities that caused forest fires. In passing the law (which can be found in full in the state’s first forester, Austin Hawes’ 1909 summary of fire in Vermont: link) the state finally had some teeth to protect its forested land. Hawes’ book was the second publication by the Vermont Forest Service, and its intent was to get a clearer sense of the full scope and impact of forest fires in Vermont, as data was scant and inconsistent. As bad as things may have been in the early 1900s, they were a significant improvement over the previous century. Here’s Hawes taking pause to reflect on the 19th century: “Despite the very bad fire seasons of 1903 and 1908, evidence indicates that fires are less frequent and less disastrous today than formerly and that the people throughout the State are more awake to the necessity of preventing them.” This was cause for hope that things would continue to get better (they didn’t, the 20s and 30s were the most devastating decades for fires).

A map of the fires in Richmond and Huntington, including a fire on Camel's Hump ()

The numbers are staggering. In the 144 fires that burned from 1904-1908, they burned a total of 16,733 acres, causing $35,682.50 (in 1909 dollars) in damage. Again, these numbers are likely on the very low end because reporting had not yet been standardized. As to what started all those fires “Unknown” was the biggest culprit (45%), followed by burning brush piles (18%), hunters & fishermen (14%), incendiary (13%), railroads (6%), and then miscellaneous (6%), which curiously includes balloons. Trains were powered by wood or coal, so it’s no surprise these were a source of fire.

Rafting logs down the White River (from Rochester Historical Society)

Even though the system for reporting fires was woefully inaccurate and inconsistent, a few points of comparison can be drawn to the state of things today: 1) fires were were more abundant 100 years ago than they are today; 2) they were, on average, larger than they are today; and 3) there was both a spring and a fall fire season. Our forests in the northeast are much wetter than those out west, and do not readily burn (with notable exceptions found on coarse sandy soils or dry, south-facing rocky slopes).

Another reason that fires were so much more common and devastating was that logging practices were so much different than they are today. Forests were cut wholesale, leaving behind an expansive wasteland of stumps and slash. Images of log drives down the Connecticut River (above) and the Burlington water front (below) from the 1800s begin to give a sense of the scale of logging in the state. While the logs were brought to mills, the crowns were left behind as slash. Over the course of a hot and dry summer, these piles would desiccate into twig tinder bundles just waiting to catch fire in the late summer/fall. As the feverish land clearing of the 19th century slowed, logging tapered off as well, and with it brought the slow decline of forest fires. Fire frequency, scale, and intensity may have declined from the 18th to the 19th century, but the fires were still bad, particularly in prolonged droughts. Something needed to be done.

Following the philosophy of the USFS that prevention and suppression were key to managing forests, Hawes concluded that fire towers should be encouraged and supported by the state: “I would suggest that a law be passed…: Whenever any lumber company or group of forest owners are willing to go to the expense of incorporating such a [lookout] station and connecting it with the necessary telephone service, the State forester shall be authorized to spend money from his annual appropriation for maintaining a watchman at such station during such period as the State forester may think advisable.” And Hawes got his way.

Fires in Vermont – Today

Forest fires in Vermont are not uncommon today, but they are almost always small in scale. While weather certainly contributes to the likelihood and intensity of fires in any given period of time, the return of secondary succession trees and changing land management/logging practices has drastically reduced the average number of fires. From 2012-16, there were 109 fires burning a total of just 317 acres (link), compare that to the 4 year period from 1905-1908 where 149 fires burned 16,733 acres (and again this number is low due to poor reporting). Over the 106 year period from 1905-2011, 3% of the states 4.6 million acres of forest burned (link).

The primary cause of fire is from still from debris burning, but downed electrical wires and lightning strikes also spark numerous wildfires. Additionally, while fall fires were a significantly problem, in the records from 1977-2011 show that this fire season has almost completely disappeared due to changing land management practices. The fire season is now concentrated in April and May, though wet spring seasons may drastically reduce the number of spring fires.

Total area of Vermont burned (in acres) from 1901-2011
Average size (in acres) of fires in Vermont from 1901-2011
Total # of fires in Vermont from 1901-2011

Map of Vermont’s Fire Towers

Vermont Fire Towers
The steel fire tower with enclosed cap and sitll intact lookout cabin (Bald Mountain, Westmore)

The steel fire tower with enclosed cap and still intact lookout cabin (Bald Mountain, Westmore)

The first tower in Vermont was built in 1912 on top of Burke Mountain (though there was already a fire lookout stationed on Camel’s Hump). It followed a similar trajectory to other fire towers throughout the state. The initial structure was built with the private funds of Elmer Darling, who undoubtedly saw it worth the investment in the tower to protect his investment in the surrounding forest he owned. The tower was likely constructed of wood and lasted just 20 years before snow and ice brought it down. It was quickly replaced by another wooden structure, which was toppled by the 1938 hurricane. A steel structure capped with an enclosed cab, was in use until 1984. The old phone wires are still visible snaking their way up the tower. Though the glass windows are busted out, the fire tower is still standing today, offering hikers a panoramic view of the Northeast Kingdom. It is also one of the only sites in Vermont that has both a fire tower and cabin still in tact. Fire towers were scattered throughout the state, though the highest density is in the NEK, where the Vermont Timberland Owners Association (now the Vermont Woodlands Association), partnered with the state to construct 18 towers (link).

Vermont Fire Tower Map

Vermont previously had 38 or so fire towers (there are conflicting records, so the number was likely higher). Over time these towers have crumbled, burned, or been dismantled. As at Mt Philo, often all that’s left is a state park, a bald summit, a foundation, and/or a ranger cabin, There are still maybe 20 or so that are still around (many online lists are incomplete or inaccurate, e.g. listing Ethan Allen Park’s tower as a fire tower). I made the map below, but have only field checked about half of the sites (let me know if you know of one not on the list). Most of the towers that are still standing are of steel construction (blue icons), while only a couple are stone (Ethan Allen in Burlington and Hubbard Park in Montpelier, in red), and the tower at Bolton Valley was the only wooden one I could find (brown). Historic fire towers that are no longer around are in black.