Just beyond the northward leaning shadow of a decades-old observation tower, the Florida Forest Service is modernizing.
An old office building with a cement floor and 12 buckets upstairs to catch rain that drops in through holes in the roof, is being retired. And an adjacent shop constructed in 1953, is finally being replaced. An old house near the fire tower at State Road 60 and Dover Road that once acted as a residence for the tower ranger, then sat empty for about 20 years, is now just a memory.
Three rangers, a senior ranger and Forest Area Supervisor Pat Keogh will soon occupy a new office and shop when they’re not out fighting fires in eastern Hillsborough County.
Funding for the $350,000 project comes from a relocation trust fund grant.
“It’s well overdue,” Keogh said. “We’re thrifty,” he said with a laugh, after discussing replacement of the military-issue 1952 air compressor the staff still uses to power its tools.
For now, the fire tower will remain.
When the 80-foot tower was built at the northwest corner of the State Road 60 and Dover Road five decades ago, the area was mostly woodlands, cow pastures and citrus groves. Today, there are mostly subdivisions packed with families.
Most of the forest firefighting now takes place in the Lithia area, north of Plant City, or in Thonotosassa and New Tampa, with the occasional outbreak near the Brandon mall or elsewhere in suburbia.
And one by one, the towers are disappearing. The tower that once stood in Wimauma – Hurrah Tower -- was purchased by Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen. He paid about $1,500 for it a few years back and planned to haul it to New Jersey, Keogh said.
Many of the towers, once designated as surplus and no longer used, are put up for sale. There is an actual waiting list of people interested in purchasing them.
In all, there are 104 towers left in the state, with 24 still in areas considered “high fire” threats. Most of those are in the state’s Panhandle.
The forest service owns two in Hillsborough County – the Valrico tower and one at Hillsborough River State Park. Hamner Tower, in Carrollwood, is now owned by Hillsborough County and is not in use.
The first state forester was hired in 1928 and the state spent $12,500 to begin its forestry program. By 1930, there were five district foresters and 1.4 million acres under the state’s protection.
By 1932 there were 22 lookout towers like the one at Dover Road and State Road 60 and nine “crow’s nests,” or pole lookouts.
In 1934, Hillsborough County was the second county in the state to get state fire protection. Duval County had been given a team two years prior to that. By the end of 1972, all of the state’s 67 counties had fire protection.
And while the state has become more and more populated, with less and less forested lands, the years after 1972 proved the worst in the Florida Forest Service’s history. In 1981, smoke from muck fires caused more than a dozen chain-reaction, smoke-related accidents and fatalities, according to the service history. Of those fires, 83 were 1,000 acres or more. Two firefighters lost their lives that year in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Melbourne.
In 1985, some 300 homes were destroyed by wild fires in the Palm Coast area and a forest ranger died fighting a blaze in the Golden Gate area of Collier County.
Fires spread across the state in 1998 causing millions of dollars in damage and devouring hundreds of homes, even forcing the evacuation of all of Flagler County.
The years between 1998 and 2000 are known in fire service circles as the “El Nino years,” during which the state received almost no rain from April to June. Wild fires threatened to devour huge chunks of the state in 2000, took down houses and closed interstate highways.
The state forestry service fought back by implementing state-of-the-art computer technology, using cutting-edge communications equipment and increasing the number of staff and the locations of state helicopters.
It also created a network of federal, state and local fire management officials to assist in fire prevention and suppression.
Today, instead of using the towers to locate fires, the forest service uses spotter planes, Keogh said.
To climb the Valrico Tower recently, Keogh had to cut a rusty lock. After traversing the 80-foot tower, he found its crow’s nest occupied by a nest of wasps.
“A lot of us are mixed” about the fire towers becoming obsolete, Keogh said. “They are really neat, historically, but they are also a liability.”