The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 17, 2014

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Exciting foot-pedal into the sky awaits at Okemo’s Fire Tower

Foliage season presents the perfect time to experience a bit of Vermont history and a mountaintop perch that rewards with 360-degree views!

The iconic Okemo Fire Tower, located 3,343-feet above sea level, fits the bill for providing that special experience.

Climbing up the tower's stairs on a clear day to look out over the treetops provides a spectacular way to view a veritable sea of mountains. From sunrise to sunset, the perspective on nature's grandeur is as awe-inspiring as the scenery is beautiful.

The views from the tower's enclosed platform extend west and southwest to the Taconic Range in Vermont and northwest to the Adirondacks of New York; south to Stratton and Bromley Mountains and north to Killington Peak among others in the Green Mountain Range; northeast to Mount Washington and the White Mountains of New Hampshire; east to Mount Ascutney; and southeast to Mount Sunapee and Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

There are several routes you can take to get to the fire tower in addition to a drive up the Mountain Road, which begins by Okemo's Clocktower Base. (If you take that route, park at the end of the pavement for an easy, short walk up to the tower.)

One fun and healthful way to reach the tower is to hike up Okemo's ski trails, which allow you to choose from moderate to more difficult routes. Another option is to take the Healdville Trail, which climbs from the Mountain's northwestern side to the tower with a gain of 1,943 vertical feet over 2.9 miles. The blue-blazed trail offers sturdy footbridges that cross brooks, a cool hardwoods forest canopy that turns into a fir forest up above, a scenic overlook at 2.3 miles, and chimney remains at 2.7 miles as you traverse the mountains contours. The trailhead can be reached from Station Road, about three miles west of Okemo's Jackson Gore.

Fire Tower history
Following a series of disastrous forest fires in 1903, the Vermont Legislature appropriated money for forest fire control, established the position of a state forester, and passed a statute designating the first selectman of each town as a fire warden.
With the Vermont Forest Service established in 1909 for the management and protection of forest resources, a 1910 law gave the state forester the authority to remunerate watchmen at "lookout stations" at two dollars a day, and the first of 38 fire lookout towers was constructed in 1912.

Rick White, forester with the Vermont Department of Forests Parks and Recreation for the Okemo and Coolidge State Forests, noted that a statewide fire-lookout system was subsequently established around 1920 with the state working in cooperation with the Vermont Timberlands Owners' Association, which had already built some fire towers. Records show that 18 mountains had lookout stations by 1924.

A "lookout station" with a wood fire tower and adjacent watchman's cabin was built circa 1922 to 1924 on the summit of Ludlow Mountain, as Okemo Mountain was originally known. (The Woodstock Lumber Company owned the mountain and later sold its 4,000 acres to the State.)

The need for manning the lookout towers was due to both natural and human causes. Sparks from train locomotives and lightning strikes caused forest fires, as did carelessness and accidents. White said that according to a 1932 report, forest fires from 1930 to 1931 were caused by: lightning (2), campers (16), trains (19), smokers (120), and brush burning (150). Forestry records show that 12 fire towers (4 wood, 8 steel) were under construction in 1934, along with related trails and roads, cabins and phone lines.

A crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work relief program, built Okemo's steel replacement tower in 1933-1934. With a year-round State Park with campsites, hiking, bridle and ski trails planned for the newly acquired Okemo State Forest, a road was started to Okemo's summit in 1935, making the new tower one of the few that would be accessible by auto.
Okemo's 55-foot-tall steel tower is anchored to a rock foundation and has a small "cab" (what they called the enclosure) at the top. There, a watchman would search for smoke plumes with binoculars and, using a topographical map with siting tools, call in locations of any fires spotted. A nearby cabin provided living quarters from spring to snow and was replaced in 1943. It burned down in 1979 and only a stone chimney remains today.

Preserving an icon
At one time there were more than 8,000 fire lookouts in 49 states, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. Today less than 2,000 remain (about half are manned) and 950 of the lookouts are listed on the National Historic Lookout Register.

Okemo's tower was manned into the early 1970s. Vermont's towers were last used as fire lookouts in 1984 as airplanes were deemed more efficient and cost effective for spotting forest fires on high danger days, White explained. Over the years, many of the towers deteriorated and became unsafe and had to be taken down.

Now, just 12 former Vermont fire towers remain accessible to the public.

Thanks to a project undertaken by Okemo Mountain Resort crews in 2012, Okemo's tower is one of them and has been nominated to the National Historic Lookout Register.

White explained that Okemo crews came up with a clever design to keep the roof on the tower - it had received several repairs but they hadn't lasted. Their ingenious design and installation technique was a steel roof that won't blow off or succumb to the elements.

Today, Okemo's tower is one of the more accessible and sturdy fire towers in Vermont. It is open for all enjoy, and, like the best things in life, it is free, exciting and fun!

Photos by Karen D. Lorentz
View of brilliant foliage through the "cab" at the top of the Okemo Fire Tower.