Fire towers: monuments to early wildfire fighting

In the Montlake Fire Tower in Hamilton County, former forest technician Jim Brown reminisces about the importance of fire towers in history. (Image: WTVC)

As wildfires spread through parts of Walden's Ridge earlier this year, a tower reminds us how fires were spotted many years ago.

Before there were cellphones ... these fire towers manned by forestry spotters. It is part of firefighting history, that is rapidly fading away.

As he climbs the small, compact steps 90 feet up to his job, Jim Brown was on top of the world. "The idea was to spot a fire as soon as it broke out," he remembers. "To get the fire crews dispatched, to get there as quickly as possible."

As seen from NewsChannel 9's Sky Cam, here on TOP of the world, was an important job. Back in its heyday, the Montlake tower was one of 28 fire towers in the Chattanooga District. They were all in sight of each other. Tens of thousands of acres of land, all be guarded by one set of eyes.

For 17 years, Jim Brown's eyes were scanning for anything unusual. "You would watch it," he says. "If the smoke that goes straight up just keeps doing that, you'd just keep watching it. If it started to spread, you'd call somebody, the next tower over, call Ooltewah or somebody."

Back in the 1920's and 30's, spotting fires was easy from towers 70, 80 and 90 feet in the air on a high peak. "It was simply calling out the window down to the bottom and saying 'the fire's down at so-and-so," he says. "It was just 'it's over behind the Widow So-and-So's house, and we knew where that was."

Into the 50's came azimuths into the cabs on top of the towers. With those, first locate the smoke in the distance. "You move the metal lever in the circle until you lined it up with the smoke's location, say like 240 degrees, and the next tower would use theirs to line up at say, 160 degrees, "On a map, rangers would draw a straight line between the azimuths computed at the two fire towers, and where the lines crossed, is where the fire was," he says.

"It's isn't rocket science," Brown says. "There is a little bit to learn about it. It's slightly complicated, but it can be learned quickly."

Towers began disappearing in the 80's. People using cellphones put them out of business. "It's a piece of technology that time is passing by," says Brown. "It will eventually pass, and then they'll just be monuments to history."

That history is indeed fading fast. Of the 28 original fire towers in Southeast Tennessee, only 10 remain. 5 of those in our area, are on the National Historic Lookout Registry.

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