Putting retired fire towers from N.C. back to work

Putting retired fire towers from N.C. back to work

26 September 2010

published by hamptonroads.com

USA —  Strapped near the top of a 120-foot fire tower in Camden County, David Vana and Mark Jones resembled high wire performers as they deftly zipped out bolts with power drills.

Although the weather was clear, the wind was gusting to 20 miles per hour, making the job of dismantling the obsolete tower dangerous even with safety harnesses.

A tall crane with a boom and cable held in place the tower cabin and upper framework.

Vana yelled down to the crane operator that all bolts were out. With a bit of clanging as metal hit metal, the crane operator slowly lifted the upper section free, then lowered it to the ground. The hardest and most dangerous part was done.

Vana buys, restores and sells fire towers, the lookout posts erected all over the nation where rangers watched for smoke in the distance. Vana, of Bloomingdale, N.Y., is the owner of Davanna LLC. He just purchased the 42-year-old Camden County tower for $511.99, about $4.27 a foot. He already has a buyer, he said.

“This one is in remarkably good condition,” Vana said. “It’s young.”

North Carolina began putting up fire towers in the early 1900s and once had 130 towers in use statewide, said Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources.

About 100 are still standing, and Haines estimated that only two are still in use. The Camden fire tower has not been used since the early 1990s, said Steve Sutton, state forest ranger for Camden County.

With the advent of cell phones and 911 systems in the 1990s, people were reporting fires quicker than a ranger in a tower could spot them, Sutton said.

But up to the 1980s, fire towers were needed in rural areas, said Dan McCarthy, a forest ranger in Currituck County.

“It was the way to spot a fire then,” McCarthy said. “On a hot, dry day like this one, we would have somebody up that tower.”

Lois Walston worked part-time as a smoke spotter in Camden County in the 1970s. Her husband, Charles Walston, retired a few years ago as a ranger. She would climb the 156 steps to the 6-foot-by-6-foot cabin at 10 a.m. and remain there through the day, except for a couple of breaks.

The crucial lookout time was mid-afternoon, when temperatures are highest. During one hot, dry spell, Walston had to work 16 straight days, she said.

“I really enjoyed the job,” she said. “It was pretty up there a lot of the afternoons.”

Fire towers have a passionate following, including the Forest Fire Lookout Association, which tr ies to keep track of the approximately 2,000 towers still standing nationwide, said association Chairman Keith Argow, a retired forest ranger based in Vienna, Va. There are chapters in all 50 states and in several foreign countries.

At 120 feet to the base of the cabin, the Camden tower is among the tallest in the country, he said.

“They are a symbol of forest conservation akin to Smokey Bear,” Argow said.

Fire towers were erected many miles apart. If a spotter saw smoke, he or she would call one of the other nearest spotters on the radio.

Using a mounted compass the size of a dinner plate, they would each get a bearing on the smoke plume. On a map, they would intersect their bearings. A call would go out to the rangers with a location that would get them within a few hundred yards of the fire.

By Wednesday, Vana, Jones and Bill Divers had the 15-ton Camden tower in sections on the ground for disassembly, removing about 1,000 bolts total.

Vana, 59, began this venture five years ago following years working as a dispatcher for forest rangers and wildlife officers.

“My friends said, ‘Y ou’ve got to be nuts to buy fire towers,’ ” he said.

He ignored them and invested his money and time in the business anyway. He has sold towers to local governments for educational purposes, to private landowners who want a view of their estates, to a developer who wants clients to have a panoramic look at the property, and in one case to a group that wants to use a tower to build a zip line.

He sold 93 feet of the Camden tower to a private buyer in Pennsylvania.

The upper section, including the cabin, will go to Vana’s property for now.

“I like stuff a little off the straight and narrow,” he said. “It’s not a job to me – it’s fun.”

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