As I write fire lookout articles here and there, I always find the feedback a great chance to learn and make friends.
After writing one of my River Hills Traveler articles I received a contact from Lawrence Buchheit, of Old Appleton.
Lawrence invited me for a “tower tour” and talk. He was able to get a key, so we were also able to check out the cab. You could see Cottoner Mountain and the location where the Coffman Tower stood at one time.
Knob Lick Tower was off the west and on a clear day he said you could even see the bridge at Chester and Bald Knob Cross. Bald Knob Cross is almost 40 miles away as the crow flies.
He noted that early on fighter jets used the area for what seemed to be low-level training, and on occasion the fighter pilot appeared to be lower than the cab of the tower.
He is also a local historian and my first questions involved the area. He noted Old Appleton was Schnurbusch and then Apple Creek, to become Appleton and Old Appleton today. Missouri already had an Appleton so that name had caused confusion.
He mentioned how the area had served as the capitol for the five local Shawnee Nations and that Lewis & Clark had stopped there on their way to set out from St. Louis on their journey of discovery.
I enjoyed the lesson and looking at the maps he shared with me.
My first questions involved his work as a tower man. Some have the impression a tower worker spent all their time in the cab of a tower. Towers were used mostly in high fire danger periods.
When the “burn index” (winds over 20 mph and humidity less than 25 percent) was high, the towers were used to “get the jump” on fires.
Being fast to the fire was everything. A crew that got to a fire when it was small had a small problem. Part of this equation was the fire finder. By aiming and “taking a shot” on the smoke, a worker could relay readings quickly to other towers or to a dispatch board.
These numbers could be translated into an exact location to speed up the arrival of help. If it was a small fire, the worker might go themselves to put the fire out.
Tower workers also knew the area. Even without several “shots” it could be evident to a tower worker where the problem was located. Early on these workers were paid by the month which could lead to some long days.
Lawrence recalled that a report had to try and locate a source. On one occasion the fire traced back to a burned outhouse. It seemed the property owners had finally got their indoor plumbing just the way they wanted it and had a ceremonial “good bye” burning party for the privy.
When the fire index dropped, there was always litter to be removed, mowing to get done, and TSI (timber stand improvement).
The timber was cruised. This was done to determine what was there and how it could be best managed. For example: soil determines timber, White Oaks on the north slope, Red Oaks on the south slope, and Hickory on either.
By replacing random and unorganized growth with management, the usefulness of the forest could be greatly improved.
The use of the towers changed over the years. As more areas were brought into the MDC for hunting and fishing, this meant more areas to cover.
Many rural districts took over the work of firefighting. Cell phones made fire reports by the public easier and the public itself became more fire knowledgeable.
Trash pick-up replaced trash burning, resulting in fewer fires. The towers were used less and less, although some are still “active” and used in the dry times. Some were abused at times by people who didn’t realize the part they had played in Missouri’s conservation success story.
We also discussed the firefighting itself. Lawrence pointed out that the “fire triangle” was heat, air, and fuel. Fires he sighted were almost always “on the ground,” not in the crown on the trees.
However, hollow trees would burn, fall and help spread the fire. A white smoke indicated leaves and grass burning. One fire season was February to May before the trees leafed out and the rains came. Another was from the first frost to December or January.
Strong winds would push the fire fast in a narrow track with a hot fire head. In lesser winds, the fire would move more slowly and spread out wider.
Fires were often fought by setting a backfire. A break line would be established by rake, road or other means and small fires set to burn back and remove the fuel part of the equation. This required a strategy and surveillance.
Fires racing up a slope were often fought when they crossed over the ridge. Blowers were used in place of rakes, at times, and water was used by backpack or truck tank. Eighty gallons of water from a truck would last about a mile. If a local source of water could be found, pumps could be used to tap the water.
Observation was important to planning and, at times, a small plane was used as eyes in the sky. Constant checking insured no flareups popped up to spoil the work done.
At times on big fires, a “dozer” was called in. Lawrence liked the John Deere 450 but there were several makes and models. Different firefighters had their own favorites.
The picture (courtesy of Jim Parker) in this article shows Jim Parker and Charlie Younger fighting a fire south of Rolla. The dozer could dig a fire break fast, doing the work of many men. If the terrain was right, it was the right tool for the job.
In the picture of Lawrence at Perry Tower, you can see a feature I have found common to the forestry workers – contented pride.
Pride in the job they did over the last century in making Missouri a conservation success story that stands out among the 50 states.
Next time you run into one, give them a thumbs up for a job well done.
(Questions or comments? Bob Frakes can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 618-244-1642.)