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A Special Feature
CAPE COD BRUSH BREAKERS
"A pictorial history of the unique forest firefighting apparatus"
By Britton Crosby
First Posted January 2001 - Re-released April 2014
(Updated April 2014)
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Fire Towers - Patrol Trucks - Patrol Planes
|On this page|
|03 - Fire Towers & Patrol Planes
Spotting smoke and finding fires
| As early as the late 1800s,
elevated observation posts, commonly referred to as Fire Towers were
built upon high grounds. The towers were placed strategically around
the state to be able to observe smoke and report brush and forest
fires to local fire departments.
Staffing of the fire towers was done by men and women who were very skilled at recognizing the difference between a chimney or contained fire, and a wild fire that was starting. Within the small shelter cab at the top of the tower, the tower operator or spotter, would use binoculars and a map to line up a smoke based on a compass bearing, and by judging a distance based on familiar landmarks such as church steeples, water towers, ridges, or bodies of water. The tower would work with other towers in the area to try to triangulate the smoke and pinpoint the origin of the fire. It would then be radioed to patrol trucks or the local fire department who would respond based on the report from the tower. The color, volume, and height of the smoke would all be assessed and reported if the fire started to grow particularly fast or was moving out in a different direction. Crown fires, flames leaping above trees, could sometimes be observed indicating a fire that was rapidly becoming out of control.
Next to actually preventing a fire from starting, the fire towers were one of the most valuable tools for spotting fires in their incipient stage when they might be able to prevent a large fire from gaining size. It is important to remember that the ability to observe and report fires that were away from populated areas was very limited. Telephones were wired in only some homes or businesses. Radios were not even available in the early days of towers, and later were usually in towers, fire stations, patrol trucks, and chief cars. Fires often gained great headway before the word could get out and equipment could be dispatched.
There were, and still are, several fire towers in the Cape, Islands, and Plymouth area. While the staffing and use of the fire towers is not what it once was, towers are still staffed during the fire season to report on fires.
|BARNSTABLE FIRE TOWER|
| The first fire tower used by the
state was a wooden tower built by public subscription in 1897 on
Shootflying Hill in West Barnstable. In 1912, a wooden watchman's
cabin was built on top of the tower. In 1914, a sturdier steel tower
was erected with Barnstable and Yarmouth paying a total of $500 to
construct it. At this time, about 1 mile of telephone cable was also
laid enabling telephone service for the first time. This photo of
the Barnstable Fire Tower was taken in 1919.
|BARNSTABLE FIRE TOWER|
| This picture shows the
Shootflying Hill Barnstable Fire Tower in 1920. The first two
way radio was installed in 1937 allowing the tower to communicate
with the few stations, chief cars, and patrol trucks that had radios
at the time.
|BARNSTABLE FIRE TOWER|
| The Barnstable Fire Tower was
relocated to Clay Hill in 1948. The hill elevation around 200' and
the 68' high tower put the observed about 250' above sea level. The
steel tower is accessed off of Oak Street, West Barnstable. The
tower cab was rebuilt around 1968-69. The tower is located along the
Mid-Cape Highway, Route 6 between exit 5 and 6. From the Barnstable
Tower, an observer can see most of the Cape as well as Cape Cod Bay
and Nantucket Sound. This photo was taken c.1960s showing
|BARNSTABLE FIRE TOWER|
| The Barnstable Fire Tower as seen
from Route 6 in 1992. Note that the trees have grown considerably in
height in the four decades since the tower was built. Also of note
is that because of the convenient height and location of these
towers, they have also become useful for mounting radio and cell
phone antennas in recent years.
|MASSACHUSETTS FIRE TOWERS|
| This 1913 map shows where fire
towers were located in Massachusetts in that day. By the looks of
the circles, only one was on Cape Cod and only a couple in the
Plymouth / Bristol County area.
|INSIDE THE FIRE TOWER|
| The inside of the fire tower is
very simple and not built for comfort. The observation area has
windows all around. Some of the windows also open allowing for
ventilation and a better look with the glasses when needed.
A floor hatch is along one side and is kept closed until it is time for the observer to come in or out. In the center is a table with an area map under a piece of glass. A device called an "alidade" is mounted in the center of the table. It is able to pivot around as needed from its center mount. On each end of the alidade are simple sights that the spotter uses to line up by eye any smoke in the distance. A compass rose on the map is then used to provide a directional compass bearing known as the azimuth in degrees and fractions from the tower.
The bearing, or line, on the smoke is then plotted on a topographical map that is folded down from the ceiling on a piece of plywood. It shows the compass rose of the area towers. Once two or more towers spot the smoke and line it up, the base can be pinpointed and the appropriate agency can be sent to the area.
The tower also has a fire radio, and
perhaps a chair or stool to sit on. Long days may have been improved
by listening in on the radio to a ball game or by reading. Perhaps a
lunch pale and a snack came with the observer. Depending on where
the tower was located, the observer may have been able to talk with
passersby or watch deer and other wildlife. Severe weather
conditions would send observers to the safety of their vehicle on
|SMOKE IN THE DISTANCE|
| The tower observer might see a
smoke in the distance.
| After a few minutes of
observation, often with binoculars, the operator would determine if
the smoke is of concern or not.
| The alidade is used to determine
a line which can then be communicated via radio to other towers or
fire stations who would cross up the lines to determine a general
location to respond to.
| The topographical map shows the
main features of the land including bodies of water, clearings,
elevations, roads, town lines, the compass roses' of the area towers
and other features that may help determine where to send equipment.
The two lines that intersect were then radioed to the local fire
department who could duplicate the crossing of the lines for their
| Not all smoke is of concern.
During the time of year when open burning is permitted, it is not
uncommon to have dozens or more smokes coming up within view. As
long as they behave themselves there is no reason to worry about
them. Sometimes, such as when a pile of leaves or perhaps a material
other than sticks is added to a permit fire it may briefly look
dramatic and get a little closer look to see if it returns to
|BARNSTABLE FIRE TOWER IN 1946|
|A major forest fire swept the upper Cape over four days in April 1946. A film documenting the fire included how the fire towers operated in those days. These clips came from that film and show the tower, the operator's use of the alidade, the plotting of lines on the topographical map, and how the lines were plotted in the fire stations and other towers.|
| The line coming out of the center
of the map represents the Barnstable Fire Tower line going west
while another line from the Sandwich Tower comes in from the upper
left of the map. Where the lines cross, slightly to the right
(east) of a clearing (Cape Cod Airport Marstons Mills) put the smoke
in the area of Osterville-West Barnstable Road in Marstons Mills
north of Race lane and south of Route 6. That would be close enough
to send someone to find it on the ground.
|FALMOUTH FIRE TOWER|
|A fire tower was built in 1914 on Howlands Park Hill in West Falmouth. It is at about 192' above sea level. Two way radio was also added in 1937. The original fire tower was replaced in 1946 by the former Martha's Vineyard tower which was re-erected in Falmouth.|
|BOURNE FIRE TOWER|
| A newer photo
of the Bourne Fire Tower. This tower is located on Signal Hill,
overlooking the Cape Cod Canal and north into Myles Standish and
Plymouth. It was built in 1914 at 221' elevation. The original tower
built in 1914 was replaced in 1947 and then upgraded again in 1968.
Today the tower is dwarfed by the cell tower near by. For many years
the Bourne tower was the control tower for the district.
|WELLFLEET FIRE TOWER|
| The original Wellfleet fire tower
was built in 1927. The towns in the lower Cape all pitched in to pay
for the tower which was placed at Brownies Campground along Route 6
in South Wellfleet. It is only 50 feet above sea level and the 68
foot steel tower was rebuilt in 1960 to replace the original
|SANDWICH FIRE TOWER|
|The Sandwich Fire Tower overlooks the area where most of the historic Cape Cod forest fires have taken place. It sit on Telegraph Hill, off of Route 130 south of Route 6 at 292 feet elevation. It was built in 1934. Radios were added in 1956. The tower offers the best view into the Massachusetts Military Reservation, Camp Edwards where fires often started. It has become the control tower for the district and may at times be the only staffed tower, It has been used for cell towers as well.|
|DENNIS FIRE TOWER|
|The Dennis Fire Tower was built in 1948 on Signal Hill off Holcum Rock Road on the north side. Elevation 150 feet.|
|BREWSTER FIRE TOWER|
| The Brewster Fire Tower is
located within the Nickerson State Park. It was added in 1949.
| In simpler times, not all towns
had fire departments. Those that did had volunteer fire departments.
The danger and importance of forest fires was far more significant
to most communities than building fires in those days. Some towns,
the County, and the State each staffed patrol trucks (pickup trucks
with firefighting capability) at least seasonally. Forest Fire
Departments were equipped to respond to grass, brush, and forest
fires, as well as the occasional building, car, or dump fire.
Inside the cab roof of some patrol trucks were topographical maps just like the towers and fire stations had. A patrol truck would monitor the radio and be gievn the lines from the towers to check on smokes. Sometimes they verified that the smoke was simply a chimney or back yard pit. Other times they would arrive first at fires and begin extinguishment before the fire department arrived. Usually this was for brush fires, but the same would apply to vehicle and building fires.
Patrol trucks were still active into the 1980s in some areas.
|FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|A forest fire department vehicle in 1930 in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard.|
|FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|This 1938 Ford patrol truck was operated by the Town of Barnstable Forest Fire Department.|
|FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|This patrol truck belonged to the Bourne Fire Department.|
|STATE FIRE PATROL|
|The early state of Massachusetts Department of Conservation Forest Fire Patrolman Henry Perry patrolled the Lower Cape from the 1920s to the 1950s. His last patrol truck was this 1942 Chevy.|
|COUNTY FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|Barnstable County operated a Forest Fire Service including patrol trucks that would respond around the county depending on where they were needed. The vehicles also served as a form of advertising and education with signs indicating the fire danger for the day and the need for permits to burn.|
| The battle to protect the Cape
from forest fires was a group effort with everyone doing their
share. Local fire departments, town patrol trucks, county patrol
trucks and a county airplane, and the state all worked
cooperatively. The Barnstable and County patrol trucks are shown
here with the fire plane at the Marstons Mills airfield c.1950s.
|BARNSTABLE FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|The Town of Barnstable's Forest Fire Department operated several vehicles in town, but the headquarters and majority of equipment was house at the Osterville Fire Station. This patrol truck was known as "210" on the radio. It carried a little more than 100 gallons of water and had some basic hose and tools.|
|BARNSTABLE FOREST FIRE PATROL|
|When not specifically fighting fires or patrolling, the patrolmen would clear fire roads and do what they could to reduce fire problems. If a fire at the dump or a woods fire happened, they were already on the air and ready to respond.|
|BARNSTABLE FOREST FIRE PATROLMAN|
|Barnstable Forest Fire Patrolman with the 1967 Ford Patrol Truck 210.|
|SANDWICH FIRE CHIEF|
|Sandwich Fire Chief Fred Alvesi actually used a 1960s Ford patrol truck as the chief's vehicle. He was more likely to respond to and get to fires before the on call volunteers could.|
|STATE FIRE PATROLMAN|
|State Forest Fire Department Lower Cape Patrolman Peter Martin with the 1960s Dodge patrol truck.|
|STATE PATROL 3|
|State Forest Fire Department Lower Cape Patrol Truck 3 in the 1970s. Patrol trucks and other fire apparatus were often previously used military vehicles. Below, Patrol 3 made a visit to Naushon Island and is shown with the 1946 Dodge brush truck that was the only fire truck on the island for many years. It was originally a Falmouth brush truck.|
FIRE PATROL AIRPLANES
| Barnstable County owned and
operated a Fire Patrol Plane for many years. The plane would be
called into service on days when the fire danger was high to assist
ground units by helping to locate fires on the ground, guide units
into the fire, and report any hazards or concerns to the chief or
crews on brush breakers. The Piper Cub airplanes had two seats,
front pilot and rear observer. The Cape plane was assigned a radio
number P-18 for many years. It was sold by the County in the 1990s
and Barnstable County presently does not have an aircraft.
Plymouth County has also had a Fire Patrol Plane known as 1-0 for many years and continues to operate it during major fires.
| The older red painted Barnstable
County Fire Patrol plane.
| The next plane was painted white.
While there were a number of pilots, one of the better known in his
day was John Lemos shown here on the right with fire warden Robert
|PLYMOUTH COUNTY 1-0|
| The Plymouth County Fire Patrol
plane currently in use is kept at the Plymouth Airport.
| There is not a lot of room in the
Fire Plane. The observer in the rear counts on the pilot to fly the
plane safely in a pattern that enables the observer to get the best
view of what is going on so that it can be relayed to units on the
ground by radio.