Thousands of fire towers once presided over Minnesota’s treetops, especially in the North Country. Today only a fraction remain.
Even now, years after her duties as a fire lookout for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have ended and years, too, after most Minnesota fire towers have been abandoned or torn down — yielding to modern fire detection by airplane or cellphone — Karoline Monson can sense the dryness in the air this early fall, the lack of rain, the danger.
And she sometimes misses the days when she climbed the 130 steps of the fire tower that soared 100 feet over Pequot Lakes, Minn., and scanned the forest in all directions, looking for smoke.
Today, the state’s best-known fire tower stands next to the DNR Building at the State Fair, rising atop the midway like a refurbished relic, a curio for fairgoers who frolic on it as if it were a back-yard play set.
But for Monson and the hundreds of other lookouts who once stood guard atop these North Country perches, ever alert for budding infernos, theirs were serious jobs.
“I did it for 15 years,’’ she said.
Remarkably, enveloped in a 7-foot-by-7-foot box for hours on end, Monson never was bored.
Particularly not that day.
“It was the late ’80s, and one morning I climbed the tower steps like I always did, one after another, 130 of them,’’ she said. “When I got to the last four steps, where you open the door to get up into the tower, I laid down my equipment and prepared to climb up …’’
“Which is when I saw the bear. I had no idea how he got up there or what he was going to do to me, but I never came down those steps so fast. I hollered to God that I knew I was going to stumble or that the bear was going to eat me. But when I got to the ground, the bear was still up there.’’
The bruin, it turned out, was a pet of the local police chief.
But the chief was out of town, and the only other person the bear liked was the chief’s pregnant wife.
So, after being more or less deputized and armed with a bagful of the bear’s favorite treats — marshmallows — the mother-to-be lumbered up the 130 steps and coaxed the bear back to earth.
“To this day,’’ Monson said, “I still get asked about the bear in the fire tower.’’
Rise of the fire towers
Nationwide, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association (www.firelookout.org), more than 6,000 fire towers have been dismantled or abandoned, and only about 800 of the country’s remaining 2,500 towers are staffed.
In Minnesota, fire towers at one time stood guard over every 8 square miles of the state’s northland. Today, only a dozen or so remain in use and then only periodically.
Many of the state’s early towers were constructed of wood and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. Later the lookouts were fashioned from steel
Minnesota’s Great Hinckley Fire of September 1894 had warned of the size, intensity and speed that drought-parched forests can incinerate, particularly when loggers leave vast slash piles and other debris in their wake.
More than 400 people died in that conflagration, including apparently, for the trivia-minded, Thomas P. “Boston’’ Corbett, the Union soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.
Not many years later, forest fires in Idaho, Montana and Washington consumed 3 million acres of virgin timber, killing 85 people.
In response, by the late 1930s, more than 5,000 fire towers had been built nationwide.
In Minnesota, the towers replaced “tree lookouts’’ that were little more than boards placed high atop pines or other tall trees that offered critical vantage points. And fire towers here generally were more statuesque than those in Western states, where shorter lookouts could be erected on mountaintops and other lofty vantage points.
“Also, towers out West often had beds in them and some sort of small living quarters,’’ said David Quam of Bemidji, who has been fascinated since childhood with fire towers. “In Minnesota, a cabin often sat at the base of the tower, or near it, where lookouts lived when they weren’t watching for fires.’’
Tinder dry as northern Minnesota is now, the region’s most dangerous fire season usually is spring.
That’s when snow melts, leaving a vast landscape of dry grass beneath bare-limbed trees; conditions that are ripe for fire, particularly on hot, windy days with low humidity.
In peak fire seasons, DNR and Forest Service pilots, and contract pilots, often crisscross the northern part of the state, looking for fires and using precise Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to report smoke or flames.
More primitively, a century ago, tower lookouts in some parts of the country reported fires in Morse code, using a heliograph, a device that reflects sunlight in two mirrors.
Later, two-way radios were used.
But spotting fires was only part of a lookout’s job: Pinpointing their locations also was important. Aiding that effort in 1911 was an invention by William Bushnell “Bush’’ Osborne Jr., a young Forest Service employee stationed in Oregon.
Osborne’s brainchild, an alidade — or Osborne Firefinder, as it also came to be known — allowed lookouts to determine exact compass readings of smoke detected from their towers.
Continually refined by Osborne over the next 25 years, the invention remains the most widely used fire plotting instrument in the world, according to the Forest Service.
“In Minnesota, when we had a lot of towers Up North, lookouts in three different towers could sometimes spot the same fire and, working together, triangulate its exact location,’’ said Curt Cogan, DNR forestry enforcement coordinator stationed in Brainerd.
“Today, with everyone having cellphones, most of our fire detection comes from the public,’’ Cogan said. “Even the aircraft part of fire surveillance isn’t used as much as it was even five years ago. Flying aircraft is expensive, and oftentimes we hear of fires from the public even before pilots report them.’’
In at least a handful of Western states, where cellphone reception can be problematic in mountainous areas — decreasing the chance citizens can report fires — cameras and high-tech smoke-recognition software are being employed, further reducing the need for human lookouts.
In some of those states, writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Norman Maclean once served as lookouts, perhaps scanning the horizon as much for inspiration as smoke.
Now, courtesy the Forest Service, vacationers can “camp out’’ in some of the same towers, reducing to mere playtime what once was critically important, a not uncommon American tradition itself worthy of literature.
Yet whatever the number of remaining smoke spotters, and wherever their stations, they’ll likely work 1,000 fire seasons before encountering what Karoline Monson encountered at the top of her tower:
“I hollered to God,’’ she said.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424
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