As the Pequot Lakes district forester, Keith Simar fought 400-500 wildfires during his career. Consequently, he knows quite a bit about fire towers, their history and their use in finding fires and fighting them.
Now retired, Simar explained Wednesday, April 10, at the Crosslake Chautauqua program, that fire towers’ use was caused by early logging of the white pine.
Simar said that logging and forestry in Minnesota dates back to the 1830s. The first military sawmill came to Minnesota in 1819 at Fort Snelling, and the first commercial sawmill came in 1839.
He said the white pine was the ideal wood to work with for building.
“Chicago was built with Michigan and Wisconsin white pine,” he said.
Furthermore, demand for white pine grew downriver on the Mississippi as St. Louis and other cities grew.
“Some said it would take 100 years to log Minnesota white pine,” Simar said. They were, however, underestimating the industry. The resource rapidly diminished.
Logging changed the landscape. It left behind areas of cut over land and slash (debris from logging).
In 1827 the Homestead Act was passed, allowing people to claim land. Scandinavians found they knew how to farm the land, but first it needed to be cleared.
The easiest way to clear the land, Simar said, was to burn it.
“Maybe it would stay on their land, maybe not,” he said of the fires.
In 1849, there was a serious drought, Simar said. It was the year of the Hinckley fire, in which more than 400 people died, and that was certainly not the only one.
In 1911, legislation passed that required burn permits, managed by the division of forestry of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Funding from that legislation allowed the construction of a few fire towers.
Simar said it was the great challenge of 26 foresters to enforce fire permits at a time when people had long been burning without them.
Simar called it, “a whole culture change the first foresters were trying to instigate.”
Towers were used to detect fires when they were still small and controlled. In some instances, fire towers were simply large trees with footholds put on the trunk.
Actual towers, though, allowed foresters to pinpoint the location of fires with triangulation. Compasses were mounted in the towers. Foresters could site down the compass, and report the direction of the fire.
If two foresters reported the direction of the fire from the tower, the fire location could be pinpointed on a map by drawing a line in the reported direction from each tower. Wherever those lines intersected was the site of the fire.
Simar said even when he joined the DNR as a forester in 1971, there was still a problem with the public not reporting fires.
For some time, towers were located roughly every 20 miles. Simar named area towers, including one that is still functional in Nimrod, as well as a tower on Birch Lake in Hackensack, a tower south of Emily and a tower near Brainerd.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the towers. The CCC had the money, the manpower and the military expertise to build the towers, Simar said.
He said the reason fire towers were used less and less was mainly because of the use of airplanes. With an airplane, the DNR could fly right to the area of smoke and could follow an arsonist if the situation presented itself.
However, Simar said, it took a lot of planes to match the constant vigilance of a man in a tower.
Eventually, some fire towers weren’t deemed as necessary as others, and some were seen as liabilities. Today, Simar said, 85-90 percent of fires are called in on cell phones by people out and about.
Simar also addressed the Pequot Lakes fire tower. He said it’s fortunate that it’s so close to town, as the location discourages vandalism, and he said that standing fire towers are a great education tool.
He also said he was grateful for the group who restored access to the fire tower, but added that the general tendency is still to close down fire towers.