News: Taylor County Fire Towers (31 Dec 2015)

Contact: Robert Lipprandt 

Surnames: Blumenstein, Keroauc, Marty, Matheus, Preschler Reigert, Schumacher, Wegter

----Source: The Star News (Medford, WI) 12/31/2015

End of an era

Taylor County leaving fire towers behind

By Reporter: Bryan Wegter

For more than 50 years, Taylor County’s fire towers have stood tall. Their task was a simple, yet important one. Provide lookouts a good vantage point from which to spot smoke across the country-side, the first sign of a fire.

Now, like cellphones with actual button, VHS tapes, film cameras, typewriters, and other 20th century innovations, they’ve become obsolete, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

A Dec. 16 press release indicated the DNR’s plans to close all the state’s remaining fire towers, citing safety concerns for some towers and advances in technology, such as cellphones and improved roads, as reasons for the decision.

“We recognize change is needed and there are opportunities to capitalize on the successes of our aviation program as well as advances in technology for forest fire detection,” Trent Marty, director of the DNR’s bureau of forest protection, said. “We are proud of the strong history and tradition of our fire program including the contributions of our fire spotters stationed in these towers through the years.”

There are three fire towers in Taylor County. One is located in the Chequamegon National Forest, dubbed the Perkinstown tower, built before 1960. Another is located at the junction of CTH M and C in the Town of Browning, the Rib River tower, built in 1960. The Rindt tower, built prior to 1940, located just southwest of Westboro, is the third. The Perkinstown and Rib River towers are managed by the Medford branch of the DNR, while the Rindt tower is overseen by the Prentice station.

Wisconsin had 119 fire towers in the early 1930’s. Last year, only 60 were staffed.

Dan Schumacher is the DNR’s Northern region supervisor and oversees forest fire suppression and prevention in Taylor and Price counties He agreed with the state’s decision to nix the towers.

“The primary reason is just an aging infrastructure. They took a long hard look at the age of the towers and the concern of the age of steels. They are susceptible to wind damage. Occasionally weather can sneak upon people,” he said. Schumacher cited the examples of the Quincy Bluffs tower in Adams County, which was destroyed during a 2004 tornado. The tower was rebuilt in 2009, at the cost of over $300,000.

“We recognize most of these towers were put up in the 1950’s. The roads have improved. The fire departments have improved. Radio and cellphones have improved. The percentage reported by citizens has increased over the years,” Schumacher said.

The last spotters

The Perkinstown and Rib River towers are staffed 15 to 20 days each spring, when dry grass left behind after snow melts and windy, low humidity days produce the best opportunities for forest fires. The duty of climbing the towers and spotting fires has in recent years fallen to two men, the last individuals in Taylor County who can claim the title of fire spotter. Mike Reigert has manned the Rib River tower for 20 years. Terry Preschler has spotted in the Perkinstown tower for nine seasons. For those interested in trivia, author Jack Keroauc was a fire spotter.

“I was expecting it from day one. I took the job and every year I was expecting to hear we were discontinuing service,” Reigert said.

Reigert recalls the first day he went up the Rib River tower, back in the spring of 1995.

“I remember the first day I went up there with my supervisor. We saw a herd of deer run across a distant field. I never saw a deer again, but I’ve seen bears and lots of bird,” he said. “I remember looking down on a golden eagle.”

It’s a view few people get to experience. At 120 feet tall, the Rib River tower is the taller of the two. Perkinstown measures in at 100 feet. Both provide stunning vistas in all directions of the surrounding landscape.

“The view was intoxicating. I’ll never forget those millions of maple and aspen leaves backlit with golden light,” Reigert said.

Inevitably there was some down time in spending eight hours a day in a small metal box.

“I was looking for a part-time job. I had retired and didn’t want to work full time. I would bring crossword puzzles, but I had my eyes open,” Preschler said. Reigert brought books to read.

Both men got the job after responding to ads posted by the DNR. Schumacher talked about what he looked for in a fire spotter.

“We just ran an add Part of it is availability and being able to physically climb the tower. An attention to detail and good communication skills. It took a special person to spend hours up in a 6X6 foot cab by them-selves. Some of the folks up there really loved it,” he said.

The towers were fitted with maps, an alidade, binoculars and eventually two-way radios, everything a spotter would need to assist fire-fighting personnel on the ground.

“As a rule we were pretty accurate. Direction was usually very well on the dot because we had a scale to measure out degrees. Then it was just a matter of judging the distance in miles,” Preschler said.

“I regarded myself as a burning barrel cop. It doesn’t sound important but it is. It was a community service,” Reigert said. “The holy grail is hearing a smoke report you called in saved a structure.”

Reigert noted that the amount of fire calls has gone down over time.

“When I first went up in the late 90’s, I was calling in dozens of small smokes a day. The last few years there’s hardly anything. I’m not sure how to explain it,” he said.

Better technology, namely cellphones, has allowed ‘grounders,’ as Reigert called them, to call in more fires. It was only a matter of time until the DNR pulled the plug on the state’s fire towers.

“It’s a shame they’re closing them. It’s a big advantage to have guys up there for seven hours a day. They can see a lot further than one person in a car can see,” Preschler said.

“It was very common for us to be working feverishly to call a fire before someone on the ground did. We weren’t totally redundant but they couldn’t justify the pay,” Reigert said.

The Future

Schumacher said the DNR has begun the process of notifying private landowners and presenting options for the future of the towers and the sites.

“We’re going to take a long and careful look at these towers to see if there’s interested parties in parts of the state there’s been interest from cell phone companies. Whoever bids upon it, the condition would be to take them down. They could use them for steel,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that to happen for the next year or two. It’s going to take time to look into the ownership of the land to take the best course of action.”

The Perkinstown and Rindt towers are in sections of the Chequamegon National Forest and under federal control. The Rib River tower is on land currently owned by Marvin and Burdella Blumenstein of Rib Lake. An easement signed in Nov. 1959 by then owner Hans Matheus gave the DENR permission to build a tower on the land.

The DNR plans on expanding the usage of aerial spotting to replace the towers and will continue to rely on citizens calling in fires from the ground.

“The good thing (about an airplane) is that he can spot the fire and he can provide information about where it’s going or if structures are involved. From a firefighter’s standpoint it’s very valuable to have aircraft involved,” Schumacher said.

“There’s a lot of lore associated with fire towers. They’re historical structures, but there’s going to be a wealth of towers across the countryside left vacant,” Reigert said.

“It seems cheaper to staff them than to send our airplanes,” Preschler said.

Some fire towers will become historical landmarks. Most will be dismantled, leaving few and fewer traces of the structures and spotters that kept watch over Wisconsin’s forest for the better portion of a century.

“It’s a unique job to have. It’s an end of an era as I see it,” Schumacher said.



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