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Monday, June 24, 2013

Firefighters stick to tradition when it comes to using towers to spot danger

The view from Rick Todd’s office is better than most.

“Most people don’t get a view like this. I enjoy every minute,” Todd said. ...

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The view from Rick Todd’s office is better than most.

“Most people don’t get a view like this. I enjoy every minute,” Todd said.

His office, at least on high fire danger days, is in a small wooden box, called a cab, 75 feet high on silver steel legs overlooking Federal Hill, Milford and surrounding towns. Clear days offer him a 360 degree view including highlights such as Boston to the south and Mount Uncanoonuc to the north.

“Not only is it the view, but I provide a service to my fellow firefighters that are now the boots on the ground.”

Todd’s responsibilities on the tower are primarily detection. Fire spotters, traditionally called watchmen, spend shifts working over the treeline. They scan the horizon looking for columns of smoke. Local laws prevent burning between 9 a.m.-5 p.m. unless there’s significant snow cover.

“There are several different fire towers in the state,” said Todd, a former Merrimack firefighter and fire chief in Amherst. He has about 30 years of firefighting experience. “The special deputies are assigned a tower and we’ll look for smoke. During daytime, usually there’s no friendly smoke, usually it’s hostile smoke.”

The state’s towers are staffed part time, depending on the fire danger for the day. Weather data is gathered from the National Weather Service and electronic monitoring stations. Danger level is rated from 1-5, with 5 marking the greatest danger.

“We all get text messages in the morning to tell us what the class is for the day,” Todd said. If it’s class 3 or above then the towers are staffed.”

The technique hasn’t changed in decades of fire fighting. Todd will drive up the gravel road leading to the base of the tower. He’ll make the steep but short climb up the old wooden steps to the hatch leading to the cab. Inside, he’ll scan the peaks and valleys outside the windows with binoculars and rely on his experience with the local area and patterns in the daily routine and landscape.

Once smoke is spotted, he’ll use an Osborne Fire Finder, a large steel disk with its outer edges marked in degrees. A mechanism resembling a rudimentary gunsight made of brass and thin string is used. A sighting is made, readings are determined on the disk and adjacent map, and the information is transferred to a large map that can be swung down from its locked down position on the cabin’s ceiling.

“The technique (over the years) really hasn’t changed. We operate on triangulation,” Todd said. “Most of the time we can get another cross from another tower. If we can see smoke, usually one of the other towers can see smoke. At that point, we’ll write down the degree line, then we’ll ask another tower for a degree line.”

Todd said watchers at other towers have added DeLorme maps, referenced on their personal computers from their own positions in their towers.

“What we can do is call Warner Hill over in Derry or Pitcher Mountain and give them mapped degrees and they can zoom in almost right to the house,” he said.

There are currently 16 operational fire towers in New Hampshire. The tower system first developed privately as overlogging and poor land management in the North Country in the early 1900s put land and logging efforts at risk.

“Most first fire towers were put in by the timberland owners protecting their investment,” said Neil Bilodeau, a forest ranger with the Division of Forest and Lands at the Department of Resources and Economic Development. It eventually led to cooperative agreements with the state.

The Milford tower originated in 1911 as a tree stand of sorts, perhaps even a big pine with a simple platform like some of the earlier towers timber companies built, Bilodeau speculates. Other northern towers were built up by crisscrossing logs to give watchers a way to climb to their vantage point.

Though basic, the technique is effective. And crucial, Bilodeau said. Advances in communication tools, such as cellular phones and the ability to tie in to the emergency radio repeater towers has improved the watchers’ effectiveness.

“It’s almost like dispatch center here,” Todd said. “Rangers cover wide range territory. They need early notification. It’s about logistics and response time, and sometimes rangers can’t hear radio communication. What we do from a high vantage point is we can give him updated information.”

The towers are especially important on busy fire days.

“I have to prioritze,” Bilodeau said. “Which one am I going to? Which one needs state resources more so than the next? Which one needs attention first?”

The fire watchers often team up with the Civil Air Patrol.

“We have three fire patrols, two in North Country, one is in the central and south,” Todd said. “What we’ll do on Class 4 and 5 fire danger days is we’ll put up the Civil Air Patrol. They have a route. If they see smoke, they’ll contact the nearest tower to get GPS coordinates to contact the local fire department.”

Towers, Bilodeau and Todd agree, are a carryover, but their uniqueness is that they provide a “constant watch over the state and woodlands,” Todd said.

“Air patrols fly over and they’re done,” he said. “If we see smoke, it’ll get reported.”

The CAP fills in the gaps said Todd. A watchman “has the same 360 degree view. It doesn’t change.”

“The problem with aircraft is an airplane can’t stand still,” he said. “An airplane can only be over a location for short period of time. There are fuel and weather limitations. On windy days, when fire danger can be accentuated, it’s particularly helpful to have watchers in towers.”

The two also agree that how fires burn hasn’t changed.

On any given day “somebody can be burning illegally,” Todd said. “One of the last times I was up here, one of the busier days, I’ve got a fire in Hudson; I’ve got an illegal burn in Milford … If we see smoke and it’s before 5 o’clock, they shouldn’t be burning.”

Bilodeau makes note that the communities surrounding the Milford Tower aren’t exactly “in the sticks.”

It’s a high-population area and has some multi-million dollar homes. He said “believe it or not, there have been a number of fires detected by towers before any calls came in on them.

He recalled a recent holiday weekend fire in Bedford. The lookout at the Milford tower called it in.

“It was a garage fire and there wasn’t a single 911 call on it,” he said. “They saved the house because the call came in from the tower early enough that they were able to get to the house and stop the fire at the garage. As bad as that is, but at least it wasn’t the whole house.”

Spring and fall provide the most wildfire action, Bilodeau said. For example, “this spring got off to a rocking fire season.”

Dry natural material on the forest floor provide fuel for quick burning surface fires. Fall fires, as summer rains die down and leaves dry and fall, means deeper fires that provide unique challenges to fight.

“Being up here is critical during those high fire days. You’re always looking,” Todd said. “All of a sudden you see something out of the corner of you eye, something doesn’t look right, then you start the process.

To have somebody up during those times, it’s critical.”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or DHimsel@nashua Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).