Ranger Headquarters

Ranger Headquarters
Big Pine National Forest, Knotty Pine

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fire Towers and the First Forest Service Women

This week's story "Hot Fire" highlights one of the most critical jobs in Big Pine National Forest or any national park or forest, the job of fire tower ranger. The boys in fire tower 7 spot smoke on Razorback Ridge. The fire threatens dynamite in caves at the base of the ridge.
Forest fire and the men who live and work in fire towers is an important chapter of the Ranger Bill story. I should mention that women in fire towers is the subject of one Ranger Bill episode, "Petticoat Rangers." Bill hires a woman, Jane Reeves, to be a fire watcher. Bill's rangers object to a woman working in the forest. Bill convinces the boys that they need Jane (and some of her friends too) and that she can do the job well.
Would you believe that the very first "fire lookout" (the official park service title for fire watchers and for their towers or cabins) was a woman? The forest service web site credits Hallie M. Daggett as the first fire lookout, working at Eddy's Gulch lookout Station on Klamath Peak in the Klamath National Forest (NF) in the summer of 1913. Hallie worked as lookout for 14 years. I would guess that both Stumpy and Frenchy DeSalle know who Hallie is. Some sources say that Mabel Grey, a lumber camp cook, was hired in 1903 as fire lookout at the North Fork of Clearwater River in Idaho.
Hallie was the first official woman employee in the forest service and was virtually the sole female forest service employee for decades. It was a man's world throughout the service. Men held all jobs from director to rangers to secretaries. The only other official woman employee in the forest services early years was Miss Helen McCormick, of Eugene, who was a patrolwoman in the Williamette National forest in a 10-mile stretch of the Upper McKenkie River country during World War I.
But in 1910, a forest fire erupted in Idaho and Montana that would change the direction of the forest service for many years. It was know as the Big Burn or The Big Blow Up. This lightening-sparked wildfire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 3 million acres of forest. The Idaho fire prompted the Teddy Roosevelt conservationists within the service to call for full and immediate fire suppression. From the inception of the forest service until the Big Burn, the service was ill-prepared to fight fire or any kind. Volunteers had to be called in from surrounding communities to fight a wildfire. Often men fought fire with buckets of water and their bare hands. Their only tools were the few saws, axes, and shovels found in forest service toll sheds scatted throughout the wilderness. By 1930 over 9000 fire lookouts were built in America's national forests and parks. Today the service makes use of both fire oboservation planes and cameras in satellites in addition to fire lookouts. Only 1000 lookouts are currently in use.
In 1935 the forest service boasted that any forest fire would be put out by the next morning. But total fire suppression was not a good policy. The forests became overgrown. A healthy forest has roughly 30 trees per acre. Total suppression allowed 300 to 3000 trees to crowd an acre of forest. Any bolt of lightening could easily set a wildfire ablaze. Today the forest service only fights fires caused by man or that endanger people and property. Otherwise nature is allowed to take its course.

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