A Bird’s Eye View

Decommissioned fire towers provide ideal vantage points

Mike Finch

Fifteen years ago, Mike Finch attended an oyster roast hosted by his neighbor, Ken Huggins, who offered him a tour of his property. Part of the tour featured an eccentric piece of nostalgia that Ken referred to as his “Eastover Eiffel” — a decommissioned fire tower rising approximately 120 feet from the forest floor. The two climbed the metal stairway and gazed over the horizon from the luxuriously renovated room at its summit. By the time they descended, Mike was smitten. He wanted one on his own property.

The process to make his desire a reality required joining a list of people who bid on surplus government equipment being sold by the state. Mike was not exactly certain of a fair price point for one of the towers, but he gained an idea of what he ought to pay from other proud owners. A little more than a year later, he received a letter in the mail saying he had purchased a tower for the price of $1,300, along with a notice of 30 days to relocate the tower to his property. His costs to move the tower were significantly higher than the costs of purchase, requiring heavy equipment and vehicles large enough to transport the object from the Lowcountry to his Allendale property. “You can’t just haul this thing off in the bed of a pickup truck. They laid it down with two cranes and intentionally broke it in half on site to facilitate transport. It’s like a giant erector set that stands 110 feet,” Mike describes.

He mostly enjoys looking out over his property from his tower. “I’ve really, really enjoyed it. I’ve spent a lot of time up there, watching sunsets and wildlife while having a beer. I’m into two-way radios and have a scanner up there to listen around to what’s happening in the area,” he says.

Though Mike did not receive his tower until 2005, fire towers have been decommissioned and available for auction since 2003. In 1993, the South Carolina Forestry Commission officially ended its tower network, along with several other state and federal government agencies. The tower network was obsolete given the availability of aircraft, satellites, and cellular phones to report forest fires. Any towers still in use today reside in highly remote mountainous regions where technology is not readily available or deployable.

Most fire tower networks were established in the late 1920s and expanded during the Great Depression through the 1940s. Each tower came equipped with a map, a compass, a telephone line, and an alidade, a sighting device used for determining directions. An observer in the 7-foot by 7-foot by 10-foot building at the top, referred to as the “cab,” would call neighboring towers to confirm the location of a fire for firefighters.

After acquiring a tower of his own, Mike became involved with an organization focused on the preservation of these 20th century feats of engineering. He serves as director of the South Carolina/Georgia Chapter of the National Historic Lookout Registry, which maintains a record of towers still standing and leads the effort in keeping them out of a scrap pile.

“Once there were 8,000 fire lookouts in the United States. All of them are visible symbols of the importance of forestry and wildfire protection. Today, slightly more than 2,000 remain standing, and of these, less than 1,000 are maintained by forestry agencies for fire detection and communications,” says Keith Argow, chair and CEO of the Forest Fire Lookout Association in Washington, D.C. His interest in these towers dates back to 1946 when he ascended the metal staircase of a lookout in Oregon, after which he became a professional forester and university professor.

Mike decided to keep much of the tower’s old equipment while making some creature comfort additions to his cab. In addition to his two-way radio equipment, his tower comes equipped with a refrigerator, air conditioner and heater, director’s chairs, and camping equipment for those times he feels inclined to linger even after watching the sunset. “My son and I have actually slept up there a couple of times, which was rather interesting,” he says.

The cab stands 6 feet 6 inches wide. Mike, who is 6 feet 4 inches, describes sleeping along the wall of his cab, his head touching one wall and feet touching the other. “It’s like the ultimate tree house. My wife would definitely say I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it,” he says with a smile.

Shortly after the towers became available for auction in the early 2000s, Billy McIntosh, a now-retired heavy equipment contractor, was commissioned by the state of South Carolina to relocate one of the towers. He was intrigued and shortly thereafter became the proud owner of four decommissioned fire towers. “They said, ‘We won’t pay you to move them, but if you want them, you can have them,’” he recalls. Billy adjusted his schedule to coordinate the relocation of the towers to his property overlooking the Wateree Swamp. He acquired building plans for the towers and hired a civil engineer to look them over. “The engineer said, ‘They’ve got enough concrete in these plans to hold up four towers,’” Billy chuckles.

After adding some additional safety features, Billy uses them as the perfect vantage point from which to manage and hunt wild game from his property. Two of his towers stand at 40 feet, and the other two stand at their original height of 110 feet. During the last 20 years, several deer, hogs, and coyotes have been harvested from the cab of his towers, either by him or his guests. When viewing his property holdings from the air, the towers sit at the center of eight 1,000 yard shooting lanes spanning outward in each cardinal direction, resembling a wagon wheel, the tower as the hub and the shooting lanes as the spokes.

Shooting a rifle from such distances requires hairpin calculation, providing for bullet drop and crosswind variables. “If you’re trying a shot at 400 or 500 yards or more, you’ve gotta be still and exact. No sitting there trying to freehand any shots,” Billy says. Fortunately, each of his towers comes adequately equipped for the task with a 26-pound custom-built rifle with Zeiss optics, able to accurately fire hand-loaded .300 Winchester Magnum caliber ammunition to the edges of the 1,000-yard shooting lanes. A bench rest, along with the extra heavy weight of the rifle, ensures the shooter does not feel recoil. The rifles are sighted in at 300 yards, and a pre-calculated chart on the wall of the tower cab aids shooters in adjusting the scope. Each click on the Zeiss scope enlarges the target so “Kentucky Windage,” an on-the-spot ballistic calculation usually achievable only by experienced rifle shooters, is not necessary. Billy also accounts for windage by monitoring wind speed and direction. He wants to ensure the safest and most accurate shot when taking the life of an animal. “If you’re 600 yards out, a 20-mile-per-hour crosswind could cause the bullet to drift as much as 3 feet at those distances. So I don’t allow any shots where the wind would cause anyone to miss or wound a deer,” he says.

Billy regularly observes trophy game on his property from his fire towers, usually among a crowd of 40 to 60 other whitetail deer. “We trophy manage the property. I had a 14-year-old boy shoot a 235-pound 8-point this past season,” he shares. With exceptional rifles, tabulated ballistics, and impeccable property management, Billy can almost guarantee a trophy deer will be harvested from his property from one of his towers. However, a fear of heights may stand in the way of even the most skilled sportsmen. “I asked a shooting friend of mine if he wanted to take a long shot on a deer, but as we climbed one of the 100-foot towers, he froze, and we had to go back down!” Billy remembers his guest having to descend the tower one step at a time, facing the stairwell, in order to safely reach the ground after the taller tower triggered an unknown fear of heights. Nevertheless, they wound up shooting from one of the 40 foot towers.

More often than not, Billy simply enjoys observing the wildlife on his property or introducing young people to the outdoors more than he does hunting any game. However, he is still searching for a record whitetail from one of his four perches. “I would like to harvest a 150-class buck from one of my fire towers. I’ve got a pile of 130s, but a 150-class in South Carolina is rare, at least in Sumter County,” Billy says.

Regardless of their contemporary uses, these decommissioned fire towers serve as  monuments of 20th century engineering achievement and conservation of the outdoors. “When I have friends who own property, I’m always pushing them, saying, ‘Well y’all need to find a fire tower and move it to your place,’” Mike says.