An Office with a View

July 26, 2008

The cab of the Kearsarge Fire Tower is an office with a view. Due south, Mount Monadnock rises in the distance, and while you can't actually see the ocean, on a clear day you can see the cooling towers at the Seabrook power plant. On the clearest days, the view stretches 86 miles to Camel's Hump in Burlington Vermont, 75 miles to the Prudential Towers and John Hancock building in Boston and 67 miles to Mt.Washington. That's also the most-frequent question: "Where is Mount Washington?"

New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands fire lookout tower watchman Peter Holmberg provides an important education function while answering visitors' questions, naming landmarks and handing-out brochures about fire safety. He's quick to remind that watchmen in the State's 15-manned fire towers primary role is to "spot smokes." Holmberg is constantly looking for smoke while talking to visitors. "I'm in the tower to look for forest fires and to report them. The rest of it – pointing out mountains, the other fire towers, roads, rivers and lakes to visitors and talking about the history of the tower – I do that because I like to."

For six years from 2001 to 2006 Holmberg manned the cramped 8' x 8' cab on the Croyden Mountain fire tower – no heat, no electricity and a 2-mile hike-in carrying all supplies: food, water, radios, extra batteries and a dry change of clothes. This summer is Holmberg's second in a comfy new "office" – the 12' x 12' deluxe cab of the Kearsarge tower which includes both heat and electricity.

In 1918, the Forest Society made its very first purchase of 521 acres at the summit of Kearsarge in what was to become nearly 4,000 acres purchased and later transferred to the state. The summit tract was purchased to honor the memory of former Governor and Forest Society founder Frank West Rollins who died in 1915. Annually, thousands of hikers trek to the summit of Kearsarge.

Due to spectacular views from the 2,937-foot summit, the Kearsarge tower also features hot and cold running questions. A busy day can include as many as 450 visitors who have hiked the half-mile Rollins Trail from the Rollins State Park in Warner or have hiked the 1.1 mile Winslow Trail or 1.7 mile Barlow Trail from the Winslow State Park in Wilmot. When the summit is crowded, "time goes much faster" says Holmberg.

Working in a Fire Tower

From late April to early November, Holmberg and the 15 other tower watchmen spend 8 hours a day in their assigned towers except for 8 days off per month. Tower personnel coordinate vacations days to provide mutual aid coverage to monitor regions where a tower isn't staffed on a given day. Each tower has one assigned watchman – no substitutes. On rainy or foggy days, staff work on equipment in the Division of Forests and Lands warehouse in Concord or take a vacation day.

Each tower features a chart of regional peaks and valleys. Watchmen confer on the "Racal radio" with other fire towers to cross-reference smoke locations in order to pinpoint the exact location. The more towers taking a fix on a smoke, the more accurate the reported location. Watchmen then contact local municipal fire officials who respond to that location. Tower personnel are equipped with scanners and cell phones to monitor radio traffic and communicate. There are "permanent smoke" locations at power plants, brush dump fires, municipal incinerators, rock crushing plants and the Franklin foundry.

Tower watchmen also record weather data at 1:30 pm each day. The data is compiled by the Pitcher Mountain fire tower and combined with data from the National Weather Service to issue the daily 2:00 pm forest fire danger classification rating. Class 5 "Very High" danger and Class 6 "Extreme" danger can be exacerbated by low humidity or high winds to create "Red Flag" conditions when fire season peaks in April and May.

The State can supplement fire tower staff with aerial surveillance flights by fixed-wing aircraft deployed by request. Aircraft investigate smokes reported in the rugged interior regions of the White Mountains where many historical fire towers have been decommissioned. Manned fire towers remain the State's first line of defense to pinpoint smoke locations, hasten reporting of potential fires, decrease local response times and ultimately reduce public costs for fire suppression. While there are 900 small brush fires reported annually, the average size is less than half an acre.

Doug Miner, State Forest Ranger for the Central Region wants the public to better understand and appreciate the State's fire tower system. Miner acknowledges the public relations roles tower watchmen play when talking to visitors. Last year, the Division of Forest and Lands created a "Tower Quest" program to encourage people to visit at least 5 of the 15 manned towers to receive a patch and a certificate. To learn more about tower locations, elevations and hiking distances, visit the Division of Forests and Lands website at

Popular fire towers include Cardigan, Oak Hill in Louden, Green Mountain in Effingham, and incredible views from the new cab on the Magalloway Mountain tower in Pittsburg. Red Hill tower overlooks Winnipesaukee and Squam between Center Harbor and Moultonboro. Manned by local fire personnel, Miner describes Red Hill as "the 16th tower in our system."

Back on top of Kearsarge, I have a few questions of my own for Holmberg. A guy who has spent countless hundreds of hours in a fire tower must have some sense of inner peace and mountain solitude. I'm tempted to ask about the meaning of life. Instead, I ask "is that your jeep down there?" I'd noticed the Purple Heart insignia license plates on the only car in the parking lot when I arrived at Rollins. Holmberg served in the US Army Fifth Special Forces in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969 during two tours of duty. As a sergeant-major, Holmberg returned to Vietnam again in 1972 to look for soldiers listed as missing in action, a half-tour of duty constantly "on-the-go" as a member of a covert mobile guerilla task force. I'm told by others that Holmberg earned several combat medals which attest to his valor in the service of his country. He proudly tells me about his son, Alexi, who served in the 25th infantry in Afghanistan attaining a rank of Captain before returning stateside to attend M.I.T.

In light of the intensity of that military background, sitting on a mountaintop seems a perfect place to spend his days now. Holmberg watches ravens, hawks and other raptors. He's met moose and bears when hiking to the tower early in the season – before crowds of hikers with dogs frighten wildlife deeper into the surrounding forest. I ask him about the peace he finds on the job. "In the first few weeks of the season and during the last few when it's still really cold up there, it can be very quiet. That's soothing. I really enjoy the quiet time too."