Cape Cod’s fire towers –like the one at Howlands Park Hill in Falmouth - have played a major role in helping to detect fires for over a century – and today they’re used in much the same as they always have been.
Joshua Nigro is a District Fire Warden with the State Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“The large fires of Cape Cod and Plymouth Counties has always been an issue, with large fires from up to 5 to 20,000 acres,” said Nigro. “Fire was a way of life for people. So to clear your land, people would use fire. To help with their cranberry crops or their bogs for blueberries and cranberries, they’d burn those off.”
The first fire tower on Cape Cod was erected in Barnstable in 1911 - in the middle of what today is the median of Route 6. At one time, there were thousands of fire towers across the country – spaced about ten miles apart - stretching from Massachusetts all the way to California.
Observers spend eight hours a day in the towers from March through October, scanning the landscape for signs of fire. In the middle of the cab sits a large round compass-like device called an aladade. Fire spotters can pinpoint the exact location of a fire using this instrument, along with a large pull-down map of Cape Cod that has circular compass bearings for each tower’s range, and an intersecting network of strings.
It’s decidedly low tech - the same technology fire spotters have used since the first towers were built. But back in the early part of the century, spotting a fire was only the first challenge. It wasn’t until two-way radios were invented in the 1940s that observers had a way to quickly communicate to people on the ground that a fire had broken out.
“Before they had the phones, they’d have to run down the tower down to the village store in West Falmouth to let ‘em know,” said Nigro.
Large forest fires on the Cape took a lot of manpower to extinguish. When a large fire broke out, local high school students would often be pulled out of school and enlisted to help fight the fire. Some blazes, like a huge fire on the Upper Cape in 1946, could take as long as four or five days to bring under control.
Firefighting technology has improved over the years, but fire towers remain a key part of the equation in a number of areas. Many states like Pennsylvania have begun re-activating their own network of fire towers to augment modern methods like aerial detection.
On Cape Cod, fire towers have far from outlived their usefulness. In fact, they offer one of the best first lines of defense against forest fires, just as they have for over 100 years.
This piece first aired in November, 2017.