“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

Fighting Forest Fires
Remembering Maryland's First Fire Wardens

Fighting Forest Fires Plaque

Offut Johnson (as Fred W. Besley) and Kirk P. Rodgers unveiling Forest Warden & Fire Tower Centennial Plaque.On Sunday, October 15, 2006 members of the State Forest and Parks Centennial Committee were joined by many of  DNR State Parks and Forest Service staff, including retired men and women who were once part of Maryland's forest fire fighting team.  Also on hand were three generations of descendents of Maryland's first State Forester, Fred W. Besley. The group gathered at the base of the Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Trail in Deep Creek Lake State Park to dedicate a Centennial Plaque to Forest Wardens and Fire Towers.

When the State of Maryland established the office of State Forester in 1906, one of the first priorities for the new forester, Fred W. Besley, was finding the means to suppress forest fires that were devastating Maryland's timber resources.

One of Mr. Besley's first moves was to establish a statewide system of fire wardens. The wardens served voluntarily. Their main tasks were to organize local men to fight forest fires as soon as they were detected, and to give talks on wise forest management to members of their communities. At their height, the Maryland fire wardens numbered nearly 350 men. Serving without pay, the volunteers did much to advance the cause of forest conservation in Maryland.

Members of the audience who had served as forest fire fightersAnother of Mr. Besley's fire suppression measures was the establishment of a system of fire lookout towers across the state. The early towers were wood, but later the state acquired prefabricated metal towers and erected them on promontories from Garrett County to the lower Eastern Shore. In all, over 40 towers were erected, including the one here at Deep Creek Lake State Park. It was known as the Thayerville Fire Tower due to its location adjacent to Thayerville. At the time, the state park did not exist.

Modem methods of forest fire detection and suppression have antiquated the volunteer wardens and the towers, however, we gather today, during the centennial year of Maryland Forestry and Parks, to memorialize the roles both played in protecting the forests of Maryland during the first half of the 20th century.

Speech Given by Kirk P. Rodgers
Fire Warden Remembrance Day
Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication
Deep Creek State Park, October 15, 2006

When Fred Besley became Maryland’s first State Forester in 1906 he faced three grave forestry challenges: 1) The rate of forest growth in the state was not sufficient to supply more than 30% of wood consumption. 2) Cutover forests were in such poor condition that their future productivity was seriously impaired and 3) Forest fires across the state were accountable in large measure for the poor quality of forest produce as well as the low yields of the forests. Fires had checked timber growth and caused defective trees. If fires were not controlled the future of Maryland forests seemed dim. Some people even thought of it as an insurmountable problem.

With a personal salary of $1500 a year, a budget of $2000 and a staff of 3 assistant foresters plus a secretary, Besley essentially had no basis to confront the massive issue of uncontrolled forest fires. Burning off the woods was an accepted tradition in many areas. It favored growing grass for livestock and was a cheap tool for land clearing. It had been practiced for centuries. Uncontrolled forest fires had begun to attract a lot of public attention in the early 20th century, but what could be done by a State Forest Service with such a small staff and tiny budget?

Abraham Lincoln Sines, Garrett County Fire WardenThe answer was an ingenious one. Besley’s constant travel around Maryland in preparing the inventory of the State’s forests had put him in contact with many citizens and their local community leaders. He decided to launch a program to recruit some of these local leaders, appealing to their sense of civic duty and commissioning them as Forest Wardens. They were essentially volunteers, but they did receive compensation for expenses during the execution of some of their duties, usually at a rate of 25 cents an hour. 300 such dedicated citizens were appointed statewide and in 1910 they were given the powers of constables to arrest and prosecute. To fight fires, however, they had to supply their own tools.

Their selection was made by the Maryland Forest Service and Besley personally endorsed each and every one of them. No political interference was permitted and early attempts to do so were sharply rebuffed by Besley and notably by Garrett County’s Fire Warden, Abraham Lincoln Sines. Link, as he was known, was a famous character of my youth who seemed to achieve hero status in conversations around my family’s dinner table.

As a youth I met a few of these famous forest wardens. When my grandfather retired in 1942 and he and my father bought forest land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland they needed people to help us look after our land. What better source of help than retired forest wardens? As a youngster I was impressed by their honesty and sense of character. I got to meet some who lived in truly remote parts of the state. I remember vividly staying in the home of Mr. Guy, the forest warden responsible for Smith Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. There were no hotels on the island and our two days with him in his home was an eye opening experience. A rugged and deeply principled individual, greatly respected in his community, he had the fire situation on the island well in hand.

Another forest warden whom I remember was a minister in the Dunkard Church in Garrett County near the New Germany State Park. Recruited by my grandfather to help control the local fire problem caused in part by farmers carelessly burning off their fields and setting fire to nearby forests, he used a very effective communication means. He lectured from the pulpit about the evils of forest fires and achieved a notable reduction of fires in his district.

Church Creek Fire lookout Tower photo courtesy of Barbara GarnerA few weeks ago we honored the Boys of the CCC for their extraordinary efforts to construct infrastructure that advanced forest and park management in the state. I think the forest wardens deserve a similar place of honor in our memories of the notable accomplishments of the last century. The plaque that we dedicate today is a small token of appreciation for an extraordinary group of individuals who did so much for Maryland’s forests at so little cost to its citizens.

We are also honoring today the role played by the fire towers in helping to detect and identify the location of forest fires. I am delighted that we have Steve Cummings from the Forest Fire Lookout Association here with us today. I won’t steal his thunder, but only say that the towers and their operators were central players in fire control and were deeply respected by my grandfather. He wanted to show those towers off with pride to anyone with a sense of adventure.

I can’t tell you how many times took his own family to visit fire towers during their vacations in Western Maryland. He repeatedly challenged one grandson, who fancied himself a daredevil, to climb the High Rock Tower here in Garrett County. It took three years, as I recall, before I got up the courage to make it all the way to the top. Other members of the Besley family were similarly challenged by grandfather and all of them recall their legs shaking during early attempts to climb towers. We marveled at the distances we could see from those towers in an atmosphere much clearer than we have today.

I came to have a special appreciation for the fire tower located near Church Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It has a great view over several large tracts of land purchased by grandfather and my dad in the 1940’s after grandfather retired as State Forester. I often climbed it to look out toward our family’s land and knew that its operators were playing a critical role in protecting my family’s interests. As it turned out a fire that was carelessly started by some hunters on our land near the Blackwater River many years ago was quickly pinpointed from that tower and the fire fighters got the blaze out before it did any significant damage. It gave me a sense of close personal identification with the towers and the people who manned them.

In the past century forest wardens and fire towers have played a critical role in restoring the beautiful and productive forest lands of our State. It is a great privilege to be here today to pay tribute to them.

- Kirk P. Rodgers

Speech Given by Richard B. Lillard
Fire Warden Remembrance Day
Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication
Deep Creek State Park, October 15, 2006

Richard B. Lillard, Regional Fire Manager. Western Region, Maryland DNR Forest ServiceSteve Koehn, State Forester of Maryland, expressed his regret that he was not able to be with us on this special day. It is my pleasure to be here during the centennial of forestry and parks in Maryland, to represent Steve, to recognize the tremendous conservation work of past forest wardens, and to participate in the Thayerville Fire Tower Plaque Dedication.

I would like to begin by talking about the circumstances that lead to the establishment of forest wardens, and fire towers.

As many of you may know, the incidence of forest fires had reached epidemic proportions in the early 1900’s. One of the top priorities of our first State Forester, Frederick W. Besley, was to reduce the number and extent of forest fires in order to increase public safety and allow for scientific forest management. To this end, in 1906, the State Board of Forestry, under powers granted by the state legislature, appointed volunteer Forest Wardens to educate and enforce Maryland’s new forest fire protection laws. Typically, those selected to be commissioned were well-known and respected men in their communities. By 1935, the forest warden ranks had swelled to 650 men.

The prevailing government attitude towards forest fires in 1938 can be exemplified by a sign that presently stands at Cooper’s Rock State Forest, nearby in West Virginia. The words I am about to read are chiseled in a large slab of natural rock, for all to read in perpetuity. The sign is entitled: “Fire Warning”

“Fire is the greatest enemy of the beauty and usefulness of each forest. The most rigid precautions must be taken with the use of fire at all times. Build fires only at specially designated places or in camp stoves. Report any uncontrolled fires at once to the forest superintendent. Aid in every way possible to keep running fires out of this area. You have a shape in each state forest. Help us to protect it. See that others do likewise”

The Forestry Act instituted warden duties that remain in effect today. “When a Warden learns of a fire, he shall immediately go to the fire and employ such persons and means in his judgment expedient and necessary to extinguish the fire.” Early forest wardens trained men in their neighborhood to fight forest fires with hand tools, which were first supplied by the warden and later provided by the Department.

When a fire was reported to the warden, he would assemble his crew and tools, go to the fire and begin suppression operations with the goal of extinguishing the fire as quickly as possible and no later than 9:00 AM the following day.

I would like to take a moment to read from the Department of Forest and Parks Manual for Forest Fire Wardens of 1955. This section is entitled:

“The Warden Receives News of a Forest Fire”

“General Nathaniel B. Forrest, the great Confederate cavalry leader, when asked for his formula for winning battles, is said to have replied, characteristically, “Git thar fust with the mostest men.” In our case, however, the enemy, fire, invariably gets there first, and so obtains an initial advantage. It develops upon us, therefore, to strike at the enemy swiftly and effectively before he has an opportunity to consolidate his position.

The essence of forest fire control is speed----speed in detection, speed in suppression. The first calls for a coordinated lookout system that gives us news of a fire as soon as it starts; the second, for manpower and equipment sufficient to bring a fire quickly under control. Once a fire is discovered, Maryland fire fighting forces are called into action in the sequence of tower to Dispatcher, to Forest Warden.”

Wardens worked long, hard hours often with insufficient manpower and equipment. There is one account of a warden hiring a local farmer to haul water to a fire with a cart and team of oxen. The cart had a 50 gallon drum attached to it. The warden paid the farmer $1.00 for three hours work, but didn’t pay for times when the cart was idle.

Snaggy Mountain Fire Tower LookoutOf particular value to the early wardens was the network of 34 fire towers established throughout Maryland. Staffed by forest observers or towermen or women, this network facilitated prompt detection of fires and vastly improved communications. The early towers were equipped with telephones and later two-way radios. Forest observers could frequently pinpoint a fire’s location, size and intensity by observing the volume, density and color of the smoke. This information helped the responding warden anticipate the number of men he would need to fight the fire.

Even though wardens and their men worked under very difficult and challenging conditions, they had a profound effect upon the natural resources of our State. They reduced the incidence and extent of fires to a manageable level and indeed, improved public safety and permitted the advancement of scientific forest management. It is often surprising to me how many of their policies and procedures endure to this day and are still used by our present rangers and foresters. When we have fires in remote, rugged areas, we still must use the tools and tactics that they employed. We still have the policy that requires fire reports to be submitted within ten days of the fire’s occurrence. Our vehicle radio numbers remain the same. It was just a few years ago that we stopped using some of the same forms that they used and our backpack pumps still leak.

Our predecessors laid the foundation for our current fire management program, one that in some respects would bewilder them. Our fire weather stations are now completely automated. They transmit weather data, hourly, to a NASA satellite that is positioned about 24,000 miles above the earth. The data is available over the internet (MODUS Active Fire Mapping Program) at any time throughout the world. We can now readily employ satellite imagery to map fires. We have modern tractor/plow units and wildland fire engines. Our personnel are outfitted with flame-resistant clothing and small, portable radios capable of transmitting messages to communication centers many miles away.

The conservation community, as well as the general public, owe the Maryland forest fire wardens and forest observers of the past a debt of gratitude for protecting the natural resources that we so value and enjoy today. Without their hard work and sacrifices, Maryland’s forest resources would be in poor condition.

- Richard B. Lillard


Map links to MODUS Active Fire Mapping Program

USDA Forest Service MODUS Active Fire Mapping Program
Link to maps that represent fire extent as detected by MODUS over the last 12 hours. These fire information products were compiled at the USDA Forest Service (USFS) Remote Sensing Applications Center in cooperation with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Maryland, the National Interagency Fire Center, and the USFS Missoula Fire Sciences Lab.

Speech Given by Stephen J. Cummings
Co-founder, Forest Fire Lookout Association
Fire Warden Remembrance Day
Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication
Deep Creek State Park, October 15, 2006

Thank you for having me be a part of this occasion! I am here today representing Dr. Keith Argow, President of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, and Director of The National Historic Lookout Register, who was unable to be here with you today, and your admiring friends next door in Pennsylvania. (Now that I have gotten to know some of you and I feel a part of what is going on here today, I am glad that Dr. Argow couldn’t attend.) And so that I do not fail to mention it later, I want to call your attention to a display at the Discovery Center where we are to gather after this ceremony. This display includes some artifacts and interpretive materials that hopefully will help to tell the forest fire tower story.

And so that the firefighters among you will know that I know something of what I am talking about – I was commissioned a Forest Fire Warden in 1951, some fifty-six years ago, ‘and the missing hair on top was burned off in 1957', before I got a little smarter.

I am very pleased that we are recognizing Forest Fire Wardens today, ‘as well as their partners, the forest fire towers and the lookouts. After meeting some of you, I now know that I am not the oldest one here, for I find that some of you are my senior in point of service years.<

But now about fire towers  – Fire lookouts, sometimes called Watchmen, were first assigned in historic times, long before we were the United States. Watching for fires in European and other cities was a result of numerous disastrous fires.

Towers were built when the high points were inappropriate. This was true in this country too, and one cast iron tower still stands in Brooklyn, now in a park there, built in the middle 1800’s. As the harvesting of timber proceeded in this country, the incidence of forest fires increased.

With the former forest floor opened to wind and sun, and the land littered with slash from the timbering, now combined with the fast growth brush that sprang up, fires started easily, moved fast, and burned hot, regardless of cause, natural or man-caused.

The first forest fire lookouts were posted by timber companies and railroad, the big losers to forest fires as well as the biggest causers of forest fire, at that time. Lookouts were generally posted on high points, and/or trees.

As land uses changed, and more people came, fire frequency continued to increase, and more people were affected by the fires. Watersheds, and thus water supplies, were being lost. Floods would follow. Farms and homesteads were soon endangered. Game and fish numbers deteriorated. Some rural people were forced to move to towns and cities, for cleaner air and safer living - the fires were that serious.

Finally, State Agencies were organized to save the resources - to restore the industry that timbering represented, to bring back the water supplies and the game and fish, and to safeguard their people and businesses.

The first fire watchers in the outlands ranged the high points on horse back, and spotting a fires, they had to ride to the nearest telephone or sound the alarm in the nearest community. And that is where the term “forest rangers” came from. Fixed detection, i.e. fire tower’s, became feasible when telephone service and use improved.

The first “fire towers” were little more than tree stands, followed by wooden towers, then open platform steel towers, and finally closed cab fire towers (as we know them now), like Thayerville.

Many of the early lookouts had to build their own ground cabins, and maintain their own telephone lines. At first it was just men, due to the dangers, but that would change. We may talk about ‘Tower men’ but it should be noted that among the ‘Forest Lookouts’ that were now employed for this purpose there were many women.

Some have said that being a ‘forest fire lookout’ was the first ‘equal opportunity’ in the job market, but not at first. The Thayerville Fire tower went up in 1921 at 47 feet and was a steel tower. The present tower went up in 1934 at 80 feet.  And some of you know more about the Thayerville Tower certainly, than I.

During wartime, the role of the Tower and their Observers took on an expanded role, in cooperation with the Army Air Force. And then again, during the period know as "The Cold War" the Lookouts were closely tied to the Early Warning Program.
With maintenance and employment cost up, and with fires being reported today by a public with more telephones, most of whom seem to have cell phones, as well as part time detection by air, tower use has of course declined.

But in some place, including Maryland, an old lesson is being re-learned. People who climb the hill to reach the Tower, and then climb the Tower are ready to listen. And so in some places, an interpreter/lookout, is passing along a message including fire safety, that the tower man wants to pass along whenever he or she has an interested and willing audience.

And in some communities where everyone works away and have no one at home to make the call, the "Lookouts" are going back to work.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association applauds what you are doing here today! But let us remember, let us be reminded, when we honor the historical significance of a fire tower, we need to remember two groups of people.

First, the people of vision who created a program, a system to safeguard our treasures, to restore our resources, to bring back the industry, and to even make State Parks possible. And second, let us remember the people, men and women, who served, often working long and arduous hours, detecting fires, reporting fires, and doing the maintenance and in later years often coordinating fire attack when radios came along.

Let us remember the "Watchmen"- the Forest Lookouts. One more thing - with most of the fire towers gone, with air patrol limited by costs, and increased telephone use - you are now the Lookout. Report what you see!

Today, if in doubt, report what you think you see, you are now the Lookout! And now, let’s put Thayerville on the National Historic Lookout Register! Thank You!

- Stephen J. Cummings


Speech at the Fire Warden Remembrance Day & Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication by Kirk P. Rodgers - Grandson of Fred W. Besley

Speech at the Fire Warden Remembrance Day & Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication by Richard B. Lillard, Regional Fire Manager. Western Region, Maryland DNR Forest Service

Speech at the Fire Warden Remembrance Day & Thayerville Forest Fire Lookout Tower Plaque Dedication by Stephen J. Cummings, Co-founder, Forest Fire Lookout Association; Director, Keystone, (Pennsylvania Chapter Forest Fire Lookout Association); Member Board of Directors, Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum Association; Retired Forest (Fire) Inspector; PA Bureau of Forestry, DCNR

Photographs (top to bottom)

Fighting Forest Fires Plaque
Mr. Offut Johnson (acting as Fred W. Besley) and Kirk P. Rodgers unveiling the Centennial Plaque
Members of the audience raised hands if they had served as forest fire fighters
Abraham Lincoln Sines, Garrett County Forest Warden
Church Creek Fire Lookout Tower photo courtesy of Barbara Garner
Richard B. Lillard, Regional Fire Manager. Western Region, Maryland DNR Forest Service
Snaggy Mountain Fire Tower Lookout