The spring wildfire season in West Virginia shifted into high-gear when the 425-acre castle fire in the Smoke Hole area of Grant County came back to life about 8 miles southwest of Petersburg. 

The wildfire was first reported on April 14, but it wasn’t spotted by an observer in a lookout tower. Those days are long gone. 

Most of the fire towers that were built in West Virginia almost 100 years ago have fallen down or have been torn down. However, one of the “silent sentinels” still stand in Hampshire County on top of Nathaniel Mountain.

Bob Smith, 73, a retired wildlife manager who lives in Romney about ten miles north of the tower, spent several years during the spring and fall wildfire seasons perched atop the tower  with a pair of binoculars in hand.

Smith would spend 90 days in the spring and 90 days in the fall at the tower site during the late 1970s. He lived in a small cabin at the base of the tower, and every morning, at first light, he would climb up nine flights of stairs to an enclosed cab atop the 90-foot tower. 

He would hang on to the angle-iron railings for dear life when weather got windy. On a clear day, he says could see 75 to 100 miles from his lofty perch. Once in the cab, Smith would use a plotting board to determine the coordinates of smoke on the horizon and notify the nearest Division of Forestry Office. 

The office would then notify volunteer firefighters who would respond. By the time they found the fire, it may have spread to several hundred or even a thousand acres. Cellphones have reduced response times dramatically and have reduced the size of wildfires significantly.

It has been years since Smith visited the Nathaniel Mountain Fire Tower. Bill Pownell, the regional forester who is based in Romney took Smith, me and my cameraman Steven Lowrey to the tower. 

The view was breathtaking. Smith was right. We could see for miles — when we weren’t watching our footing on the rocky terrain.

The fire tower on top of Nathaniel Mountain was built in 1939. Pownell says his grandfather was one of the first paid observers to climb that tower. Like Smith who spent the spring and fall wildfire seasons in a tiny two-room cabin at the base of the tower, Pownell says his father spent the first few months of his life with his grandfather and grandmother in that cabin.

The fire-spotting days of towers began to fade when folks in West Virginia got telephones after World War II, and cellphones sealed the fate of more than 100 fire towers in West Virginia and hundreds more in the four-state region. 

The oak steps on the first two flights of stairs going up the tower are missing. “I had to,” said Pownell, “because folks were climbing the tower and vandalizing the cab.” As he pointed at some white paint scribbled across a metal box, Pownell explained, “the inside of the enclosed cab atop the tower contains all kinds of graffiti.”

Although the tower can be seen standing atop of Nathaniel Mountain, its glory days have surely passed. As my cameraman climbed the tower, he said the wind wasn’t a problem; however, he could feel the oak steps shake with every step. 

Stopping two flights short of the hatch that led into the enclosed cab, Stephen turned back and yelled, “they don’t pay me enough to do this!”