Their time in fire towers is no more
By JAMIE FRANCIS and CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
Paul Fore has spent 18 years scanning the horizon for smoke from a fire tower about 12 miles north of Ocala. He climbs 139 steps to the top and, on a clear day, he can see 30 miles.
But as of today, he and the other 34 full-time state Division of Forestry employees who staff the fire towers will be out of a job, victims of budget cuts and changing times.
Fore can't see why he's being let go, and he's not the only one.
"The people around here, they're mad," he said. "They feel like I'm their eyes."
Despite a record drought that has left the state susceptible to wildfires, the tower employees lost their jobs because Gov. Jeb Bush ordered all state agencies to cut their budgets 25 percent over the next five years.
Eliminating the 35 fire tower employees saves the state $700,000, according to Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the state Agriculture Department, the parent agency to the Division of Forestry.
If the governor thinks the state can get by without fire towers, Fore said, "that shows how much he knows about it, and I voted for the man."
During the months when conditions are ripe for wildfires, the state will try to keep the towers staffed with temporary workers, Division of Forestry fire chief Jim Karels said when the cuts were announced last month.
"Hiring people part time in those kind of situations will not be easy," Karels said then. "It'll hurt us down the road."
The towers have been a fixture of the Florida landscape for a century, McElroy said. "They're a relic of the horse-and-buggy era," he said.
They hit their peak in the 1960s when the state had about 200 full-time employees to keep watch from the 100-foot towers that dotted the state, he said.
But as Florida's booming population sent suburbs sprawling into what were once forests, many towers that were built in isolated areas instead wound up keeping watch over an expanse of asphalt.
Meanwhile, the state has begun using more advanced tools to keep tabs on fires: aircraft, cell phones, radar and satellite imagery.
"The fire towers have become somewhat obsolete," McElroy said. "Over the last 30 years we've been phasing them out. These are the last of the full-time positions."
To replace the lost fire tower workers the state will step up aerial surveillance, but that, too, is expensive, Karels said.
As for the longtime employees who always kept an eye out for smoke, "it's bye-bye, good luck, after 18 years," Fore said.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire