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Fire Towers


After decades of service West Virginia’s forest fire towers were closed in 1990. At one time approximately 100 towers operated by federal and state forestry agencies dotted the state. Less than a dozen remain standing today, and none is in service.

The development of the fire tower network was a result of disastrous forest fires that swept the Mountain State following the cutting of the original virgin forest. The first fire towers were erected in 1916. These wooden structures had two floors. The first floor was the living quarters for the observer, and the second floor served as an observation room. With the advent of taller steel towers separate living quarters were provided, usually a small cinder block or log building adjacent to the tower. The first steel tower was built on Backbone Mountain near Parsons by Emory N. ‘‘Pop’’ Wriston in 1922.

During the spring and fall months, when fire danger was most severe, observers scanned the area around them for the first sign of fire. When a tell-tale plume of smoke appeared above the horizon, the observer relayed the information to a nearby district forestry office. Each tower contained a circular map of the surrounding area. By sighting along an alidade or fire finder, an observer could quickly take a bearing on the smoke. By comparing the readings from two or more towers one could pinpoint the location of the fire where the readings intersected on the map. This method is known as triangulation. Fire fighting crews were then dispatched to the scene to suppress the fire.

Today, most wildfires are reported by citizens or by observers in aircraft employed by the Division of Forestry. While dozens of fire towers are still standing, most are in dangerous and dilapidated conditions. However, several have been restored, and some can be rented for overnight stays.

Written by Robert Beanblossom