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Fire watch is long, lonely

July 18, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - For someone who doesn't like heights, Mike Freeman faces a towering challenge these days.

Recently assigned watch duty at the Big Flat fire tower in the Michaux State Forest, the state forestry employee - who normally works on the ground - has to climb 72 steps to a tiny room 85 feet high.

"I don't mind it once I get inside here," Freeman said.

Though not normally staffed during the summer months, the fire tower has been occupied every day since dry weather raised the danger of forest fires.

The fire watchers' only job is to look for smoke in every direction for eight hours.

"It will be daily now until it rains," said Rod Lyon, forest fire inspector.

Nobody has been assigned yet to the state's other fire tower on nearby Snowy Mountain.

Both towers are staffed full time in the spring and fall.

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The area has been classified as high on the national fire danger rating system since drought conditions began this month, Lyon said.

Sometimes the anticipation of a forest fire can be worse than actually fighting it.

Eight hours is a long time to be confined alone in the lofty 7- foot-by-7-foot room, Freeman said.

"It gets boring at times and a little lonely," he added.

It is equipped only with a large circular map mounted on a table in the middle of the room, binoculars, a radio and a stool, though Freeman said he doesn't do much sitting.

Lyon checks in with Freeman by radio several times a day. He allows those on tower duty to take up an FM radio and books to ease the monotony, he said.

High above the trees, it's quiet except for the wind whistling through the open glass windows on all four sides.

"It can get pretty hot up here without that breeze," Freeman said.

The tower, built in 1921, sometimes shakes if it gets too windy. Lyon said it was recently inspected and is structurally sound.

Perched on top of the tower, Freeman's view is mostly of treetops as far away as 10 to 15 miles in all directions covering three counties - Franklin, Cumberland and Adams.

He is on the lookout for a straight, constant column of whitish-gray smoke, Lyon explained.

It's up to Freeman and the others to familiarize themselves with the lay of the land. They should know where the roads run and be able to locate the campgrounds, nearby Caledonia State Park and the few homes that sit on the edges of the forest, Lyon said.

If he detects a column of smoke somewhere in the forest, Freeman finds it using the coordinates on the map, calculates the distance, determines how big it is and how fast it's spreading, then reports it by radio to the district office in Fayetteville.

In the fire room, other employees mark the fire on a large map and mobilize firefighters.

"We have our people and the local volunteer fire companies who we rely heavily on for manpower," Lyon said.

Since July 4, five forest fires in Cumberland County have burned a total of 2 acres, Lyon said.

The most recent fire on Monday, which burned an acre of forest, was discovered by Lyon in the Big Flat tower.

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