FIRE LOOKOUT HAS LONELY JOB
Sunday Dec 13, 1953
Lonely as a lighthouse keeper’s is the job of Govan Smith Jr, fire tower lookout atop 2,300-foot-high Bays Mountain. For five long months each year, Smith perches in his seven-foot-square lookout shelter atop a 60-foot tower with nothing for company except the birds, the clouds, and one of East Tennessee’s most magnificent panoramic sweeps. From mid-October to mid-December, through March, April and May, Smith scans the countryside from lofty ET-12. His sole duty: Keep Tennessee’s forests green.
His only communication with the outside world for days on end may be a few terse words with the fire department at Holston Ordnance Works, spread out 1,000 feet below him, and exchanges of information with his co-workers in neighboring lookout towers.
To contact HOW, Smith uses a walkie-talkie radio set. For his contact with towers on 3,200-foot-tall Chimney Top and lower Vann Hill, he turns the crank of the old-fashioned box telephone, a direct line used solely by the state forestry service.
There’s more to forest fire control than merely sighting a cloud of ugly blue smoke and barking orders into a telephone. Times-News staff members learned as much upon mounting the dizzy heights to join Smith in his crow’s nest. Photographer Frank Creasy caught the major steps with his camera. Suppose Smith’s afternoon of dreamily composing poetry (one of his favorite pastimes) is disrupted by smoke rising from a slope miles away in Washington or Greene or Sullivan Counties. The first thing Smith does is find the smoke cloud in the sights of his alidade (upper left) and read the bearing on the circular scale. Then, with a similar bearing obtained by ET-14 (Chimney Top) or ET-8 (Vann Hill), he is able to pinpoint the fire by plotting its location on a base map (upper right). This is done by placing strings from points representing the two lookout towers across the respective degrees reported. The first is pinpointed where the lines cross. Once the fire is located, Smith grabs the phone again (right center) and alerts his fire crew leader who may be plowing in a field at his farm miles away. If HOW is in danger, the lookout grabs his walkie-talkie (lower right) and signals the fire department below him.
Smith makes three checks daily at the state weather station in the woods below his tower. He reports his readings daily to other towers nearby, and once weekly to the district office at Knoxville. The fire danger weather station records moisture content of the leaves and other wood. Porous basswood sticks are exposed to the air, then hung on an instrument resembling a scales (left center). The moisture content of the sticks is reflected on the scale inside the box. I.H. Floyd, fire control assistant to District Forester Sam Long, gives Smith a hand in determining how dry the woods are becoming.
Nights are spent in a one-room 12-by-14-foot cabin built by the state near the foot of the tower (lower left). Long autumn nights are made comfortable by a warm wood stove, and warm meals are prepared for the tired lookout by his mother (lower center) who keeps house for her son while on the mountain.