Agency wants people to climb fire towers

MILFORD – Federal Hill is only a hill, but if you climb its 690 feet on a clear day and then climb the 75-foot steel tower at the top, you can see, if not forever, many miles in every direction.

The steel structure is one of New Hampshire’s fire towers that have been protecting forests for more than 100 years. This month, the New Hampshire’s Division of Historical Resources is celebrating fire towers and fire tower history by encouraging people to climb as many of the fire towers as possible.

Anyone visiting five or more towers is eligible to receive a Tower Quest patch through the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands.

Once there were 91 state-owned fire towers in New Hampshire, and now there are 15. The furthest north is on Magalloway Mountain in Pittsburg, and Milford’s Federal Hill is the southernmost. Some are accessible by auto road and others present challenging hikes through rough terrain.

Federal Hill requires a relatively easy hike up a jeep road. At a normal pace it should take less than 15 minutes.

When hikers get to the top of any of the towers, they can post pictures of themselves on “My New Hampshire,” the NHDHR’s photo-sharing website, which is smartphone-friendly and can be accessed from the NHDHR’s website, nh.gov/nhdhr.

The towers are still used for fire prevention, and they serve an important role in early detection of wildfires, especially remote fires, such as escaped campfires, said Brad Simpkins, director of the state Division of Forests & Lands.

“The smaller a fire is when we catch it, the safer, cheaper, and easier it is to extinguish,” he said in an email. “Also, there are a lot more homes in the woods today than in years past, so even small wildfires can threaten to burn homes and structures, therefore spotting fires quickly is important.

The 15 towers are manned by state forest employees, but only when the fire danger is high – Class 3 or higher on a 1-5 ranking, with Class 5 being extreme fire danger.

On Saturday, May 5, the Milford tower was staffed in the afternoon, said Rick Todd, a retired Amherst fire chief who has been a special deputy with the forestry agency for more than 20 years.

“It’s fantastic” being up in a fire tower, Todd said, “the views are beautiful and you’re protecting the countryside.”

And at the top the Milford tower, when it is clear, he said, you can see the Prudential Center and the John Hancock Tower.

New Hampshire is the most forested state in the nation and there are places with no cell phone coverage, he said, so “fire towers are a great asset.”

Fire tower history

According to the N.H. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, New Hampshire’s first fire tower was built in Croydon around 1907. Early towers, like Federal Hill, built in 1911, could be as simple as a platform built in a tree.

As the need for more stable structures increased, engineered wooden towers were built, and they were replaced by the steel towers still standing across the state. These towers are topped by cabs that offer 360 degree views.

Many existing New Hampshire fire towers were built in the 1920s and 1930s, when forest fires were frequently started by train embers or smoking materials. Watchmen often lived in cabins near the base of a tower and would telephone for help if they saw smoke nearby.

The Division of Historical Resources is also encouraging everyone who visits a historic fire tower to share their images on social media and to include the hashtag #MyNewHampshire.

The salute to fire towers is part of the agency’s recognition of May as National Preservation Month.

Throughout the month, follow the NHDHR’s Twitter account, @nhdhr_shpo, to learn about New Hampshire’s fire tower history and to see some of the towers you can visit.

The N.H. Division of Forests and Lands and the Division of Historical Resources are now part of the N.H. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

For more information, go to nh.gov/nhdhr or call 271-3483.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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