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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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Page 3
Spotting Fires
 Fire Towers - Patrol Trucks - Patrol Planes

FIRE TOWERS

On this page
03 - Fire Towers & Patrol Planes
                   Spotting smoke and finding fires
                   Fire Towers
                   Patrol Trucks
                   Patrol Planes
 

FIRE TOWERS
 

SPOTTING 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 surrounding trees
 


 

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 the ground.
 


SMOKE IN THE DISTANCE
      The tower observer might see a smoke in the distance.
 

OBSERVATION
      After a few minutes of observation, often with binoculars, the operator would determine if the smoke is of concern or not.
 

ALIDADE
      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.
 

TOPOGRAPHICAL MAP
      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 own use.
 

PERMIT FIRE
      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 normal. 
 

 

 

 

 

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. 

BARNSTABLE TOWER
      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 structure. 
 



 



 

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. 
 

 

 


 

FIRE PATROL TRUCKS
 
 
PATROL TRUCKS
      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.


 

WORKING TOGETHER
      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

AIR POWER
      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.

 

P-18
      The older red painted Barnstable County Fire Patrol plane. 

 

 


P-18
      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 Dottridge. 

 

 


 

 

PLYMOUTH COUNTY 1-0
      The Plymouth County Fire Patrol plane currently in use is kept at the Plymouth Airport. 

 

 

TIGHT SPACE
      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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Page 3
Spotting Fires
 Fire Towers - Patrol Trucks - Patrol Planes

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