USA — The old lookout towered over Lake County for decades, giving forest rangers wide views while they scanned the horizon for forest fires.
But in the last two years, the metal tower near Leesburg had become obsolete. Growth across Florida has meant less forested land and a diminishing need for fire towers. Their need also has been lessened with rangers using new technology nowadays, including aircraft, cell phones, radar and satellites to scout for brush fires.
So the 100-foot tower on State Road 44 became Florida’s latest tower casualty when it was taken down piece by piece recently. Still, it wasn’t tossed into the scrap heap. Instead, it was put up for bid and quickly purchased by a ham-radio buff who plans to erect the tower on his north Georgia property and place antennas and webcam on top.
Call it an unusual form of recycling in a time of tight state budgets. State officials say selling the old towers is a way for the state to cut costs and make a few bucks, considering that an increasing number of towers are sitting idle.
“That era has kind of gone away,” said Ray Lovett a forest area supervisor with the state Division of Forestry. “And, of course, in today’s economy, the state is trying to save money.”
In the past decade, 44 fire lookout towers have been sold to ham-radio enthusiasts, history buffs and anyone else willing who casts a winning bid and pays to have the tower dismantled and hauled away.
A side benefit is that the towers live on, said Ralph Crawford, assistant chief of forest protection.
“We try not to throw something away unless we know someone is willing to put it to use,” Crawford said. “We put it to bid and try to get the best deal. So eventually it will serve a need for someone else in the community.”
Buyer: ‘a great deal’
Mike Guler’s winning bid for the Leesburg tower with an 8-foot-by-8-foot cabin was a modest $667. However, he figured it would end up costing him thousands more to bring it down and haul it home.
“I think it’s a great deal,” Guler, 50, said as he watched workers last month dismantle the tower using a tall crane and load the pieces on to a leased flatbed truck. State forestry workers sat nearby to make sure the process proceeded without a hitch.
With the Leesburg tower gone, 110 remain in Florida. Most still standing are in north Florida and in the Panhandle, areas with large tracts of timber. Central Florida has eight, four fewer than in 2000, according to the Division of Forestry. There are four in Volusia, two remaining in Lake and one each in Osceola and Seminole counties.
This year, forestry officials plan to put out to bid the tower off State Road 33 at Eva Lookout near Lake Erie Road in south Lake County.
After that one is sold, the only tower left standing in Lake County will be one in Paisley on the southern rim of the Ocala National Forest. It was recently renovated and painted bright orange to make it visible to Navy pilots during bombing runs from the Pinecastle Bombing Range.
‘Hate to see it go’
The demise of fire towers saddens North Port resident Jack Sargent, director of the Florida chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, a national nonprofit group dedicated to saving and maintaining the structures.
Sargent, 72, said fire lookout towers are “near and dear to my heart” called it “unfortunate” that Florida is putting many of them up for sale. But he said it’s better than discarding them as scrap metal.
“I would agree that the first best option is to have them stay in place and be placed on a national historic register,” said Sargent, who for 38 years worked for the New Hampshire state forestry program and was the former head of that state’s Forest Fire Service. “But if in fact that’s not going to happen then they should be sold to someone who will maintain them. At least they won’t be allowed to deteriorate.”
Sargent said volunteer groups could maintain towers state officials decide they no longer need.
Watching the Leesburg tower come down brought back memories to Gary Schreiber, 57, a senior forest ranger who remembered climbing the zigzagging steps in the mid-1970s to sit in the tiny cabin.
It was also a familiar landmark.
“We hate to see it go, because we could always tell people to look for the fire tower,” he said.