The original tower was replaced by the current structure in 1962 which was actively used until the late 1970s when modern technology using satellites and aircraft replaced the need for the manned lookout towers across the nation. The tower in the San Juan National Forest was scheduled for demolition in 1991 but was saved by the Jersey Jim Foundation, a local non-profit volunteer group that renovated the tower and now operates and maintains it with a permit from the San Juan National Forest. The foundation rents the fire tower to individuals for a maximum of two nights and the proceeds are earmarked for maintenance of the structure.
The one-room cab of the tower, which is 55 feet above ground, includes the original furniture, which consists of a dining table and four chairs, a small kitchen area consisting of a sink, refrigerator and stove with propane lights, heater, a double bed and dresser with windows all around for a 360-degree view. In the middle of the 15 by 15-foot cab is the historic fire finder, which early lookouts used to spot fires and report the exact locations to dispatchers using the same map to locate the coordinates. There is no electricity or running water in the cabin so everything has to be carried up or hoisted up using a pulley system, which can handle small loads one at a time. The only drawback, according to Pat, is that the pit toilet is 71 steps down to ground level, so a bucket is handy for those times when nature calls in the middle of the night.
The temperature at the fire tower was very pleasant considering that we have had temperatures hovering around 100 degrees for the past couple of months. The warmest day that we were there was 74 degrees with a nighttime low of 42 degrees. But at nearly 10,000 feet we still didn’t get away from the smoke, which caused the visibility to be limited, but it did make for some beautiful sunsets. As I mentioned, this is sort of an annual trip for us only if we can get a reservation. The reservation period opens the first day of March and only with aggressive calling can you get a call through without a busy signal. This year I finally got through on the second day and they still had some days open.
Our valley has also been very smoky lately. The National Weather Service tells us that the smoke is mostly coming from all of those major wildfires in California and other western states, which I’m sure is also coming from the dozen or so fires that are currently burning in Utah.
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And speaking of fires, the topic of fire safety was discussed by the town council 25 years ago this week after several people complained of a large outdoor fire with resulting sparks flying in the air by a resident who was firing pottery. It was pointed out at the meeting that parties responsible for starting a fire are also liable for the costs involved in suppressing a blaze. As an emergency measure, the council and Mayor John Groo bestowed Fire Chief Floyd Stoughton with the power to enforce whatever action that he deemed to be correct to control fires in the valley.
I remember a heated conversation between the resident and the fire chief at the scene of the controlled pottery fire that night, but in the end the fire was extinguished and calm and fire safety was restored to the valley.
Fire was also the theme of this column 20 years ago this week when I reported on a fire alert awareness education program that was organized by Vicki Todd and held at the Castle Valley LDS Church. Fire Chief Floyd Stoughton opened the program by stating that many people show up at a fire but do not know what to do, which he said illustrated the need for trained volunteers. Three short videos were shown outlining fire behavior, and that the speed of a fire depends on the amount and type of fuel, the slope of terrain and direction and force of wind. They discussed the need for having working fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, defensible space around homes, to eliminate ladder fuels, and all of the other things that we still harp on today. Todd said that you could tell the audience had a great respect for fires and wanted to help protect their properties and loved ones.