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Despite murky view, visitors high on Fairview tower

January 19, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Fans of fire lookout towers generally look for three things - the structure, the people in charge of the tower and the view from the top.

Even though thick fog circled the ice- and sludge-covered fire tower at the Fairview Outdoor Education Center on Sunday, observers said they got two out of three things they seek.

"And that ain't bad," said Keith A. Argow, national chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association.

Between eight and 10 members of the association made the unnamed tower at the Fairview center their first stop on an eight-tower tour Sunday despite the wintry mix falling from the sky. The members were at the association's annual national meeting, held over the weekend at Penn State Mont Alto.

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The tower tops out at 102 feet and, on a clear day, provides a view of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Among the landmarks within the usual line of sight are South Mountain and Whitetail Mountain Resort.

"It's the luck of the draw," said Henry Isenberg, co-founder of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. "This doesn't deter the hard-core people."

The Forest Fire Lookout Association, started in 1990, is a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting fire tower awareness and helping protect threatened lookouts, according to the group's Web site.

There are members from as far away as Norway and Australia, Isenberg said.

Isenberg, who got his first professional job watching for fires at a tower in 1985 in his home state of Massachusetts, said he and a friend happened upon the Clear Spring structure "by a fluke" in November while scouting sites for the 2004 meeting weekend.

"We were driving and noticed the tower up on the hill - it was right in front of us," Isenberg said. "I said, 'We have to come back here.' "

Isenberg and some of his colleagues are researching the origins of the tower, including its official name. In the mid-1980s, the tower was taken down from its original site in Anne Arundel County, Md., transported to Clear Spring and erected again, he said.

Ed Hazlett, head teacher at Fairview, said it serves as an education center for the Washington County Board of Education. Hazlett said all fifth-grade public school students are required to complete a four-day, three-night course that blends science and social studies learning with the challenge course, a rope course that ends with a trip to the top of the fire tower.

Hazlett said that part of the program is a highlight and helps many overcome their fear of heights.

"They do the climb of the fire tower as a self-esteem-building activity," Hazlett said. "For a lot of kids, climbing that high is significant."

Although students make their annual climb in the safest conditions possible, members of the Forest Fire Lookout Association trekked through freezing rain up the icy steel stairs Sunday.

Argow said he didn't mind the uncooperative weather.

"There's three things you look for - the structure, the view and the people associated with it," Argow said. "This time, we got two (positives) out of three, and that ain't bad."

Argow, who has climbed towers in 40 states, said he was thoroughly impressed by the sturdiness of the structure and by the Fairview operation.

"This is a first-class facility - there's no doubt about it," Argow said. "Washington County is very lucky to have this."

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