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Lookout Once Played A Vital Role In Protecting Surrounding Forests

Frying Pan Tower


Last updated 9/28/2020 at 3:04pm

A fire tower observer taking a reading on a smoke from a forest fire using an alidade. Combining the readings from several towers, a dispatcher could accurately pinpoint the fire's location and quickly direct crews to the scene.

Fire towers once dotted much of North Carolina's landscape. Strategically located, these towers and the men and women who staffed them were the front line of defense in the struggle to provide initial protection to our state's forests.

One such tower that remains today is the Frying Pan Lookout, which juts above the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Pisgah Inn in the vicinity of Mile Post 408.

Overlooking the Cradle of Forestry in America in Pisgah National Forest, Frying Pan Mountain Lookout was established in 1941 by enrollees from a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp that was then located at the present-day fish hatchery on Davidson River.

At 70 feet in height, the steel tower with its 12-foot by 12-foot metal live-in cab is the tallest remaining lookout west of Asheville. Now used as a radio relay point, it is easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway and remains a popular Hiking destination.

When a telltale plume of smoke appeared above the horizon, fire tower lookouts would take a bearing by sighting along an instrument called an alidade, which was mounted on top of a circular topographic map located in the center of the tower cab. They would then radio or telephone the reading to a nearby district forestry office.

By "crossing checking" the bearings from two or more towers, the fire dispatcher there could pinpoint the exact location of the fire and quickly direct crews to the scene.

Experienced observers, however, often came to know the landscape surrounding their tower so well that when a smoke sprung up, they immediately knew where it was located without needing another tower's help.

During their hey-day, Frying Pan and other lookouts were staffed during the spring and fall months. In the Appalachian Mountains this is the period when forest fires are most likely to occur because it is the period when leaves are off of the trees and sunlight can directly strike the forest floor causing it to dry rapidly.

Depending on the weather, observers could be on duty for long periods of time. They had standing orders to have a supply of food to last at least 14 days.

In an interview in 1988, Lindsey Rogers, who staffed the nearby High Knob Tower, related how he was on duty for 43 days once without a break during the spring of 1963, which was a critically dry time throughout the Southeast.

Even today foresters still refer to April 4, 1963, as "Black Thursday" in North Carolina. On that single day, 127 fires burned 185,000 acres across the state.

Although state and federal agencies may have had slightly different operating procedures, they were similar enough to allow for close coordination.

The U.S. Forest Service at one time required their observers to report in every hour during the day and if it was really dry and the fire situation was bad, they reported in every four hours all through the night.

Theirs was not a lonely job, contrary to popular belief. Constantly scanning for fires, keeping daily logs, answering the telephone and radio and greeting visitors made the time pass quickly.

At Frying Pan, the observer lived in the tower. Other lookout sites had cabins located near their base. All were equipped to be as comfortable as possible.

As the man on the left prepares to take a bearing on a new forest fire with an alidade, the other is immediately contacting the district office to relay the information so fire crews can quickly be dispatched to the fire. (Courtesy photos)

Live-in sites, in addition to the map with alidade, usually had a wood stove for heating and cooking, cabinets for storage of food and personal belongings, and a cot. A pit toilet was located on site. All were equipped with binoculars and a telephone linked the tower to the ranger station and other towers.

After World War II radio communication came into wide-spread use among state and federal agencies.

With the advent of ubiquitous telephone service and aerial detection of fires from aircraft, towers have been gradually phased out and are only used in a few locales in the United States today. Those remaining though stand as silent sentinels to a by-gone era in the development of forestry in America.

(Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, retired from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources after a 42-year career with that agency. He and his wife currently are the volunteer caretakers at the Cradle of Forestry in America in Pisgah National Forest.)


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