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Forest Fire Observer Has High Position

April 25, 1988

MIZPAH, N.J. (AP) _ Seven days a week when it’s sunny, Henry Hasselhan sits alone in a closet- sized room 100 feet in the air and stares into space.

But if a puff of smoke appears, the fire tower observer must quickly spot it, plot its location with help from another tower and report in by short-wave radio.

And in the heart of forest fire season, Hasselhan may do that several times a day.

From March 15 to May 15, when humidity is low and leaves have not yet covered bare trees to provide shade, the warming sun may spontaneously ignite the dry forest floor, said Ben Petrini, an assistant warden with the state Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation.

Hasselhan’s job may seem monotonous, but his window-lined ″office″ has one of the finest views in all of southern New Jersey. It also sways in the wind.

″Sometimes it gets boring, sometimes it gets very busy,″ the 33-year-old Atco resident said. ″A lot of times you just sit here. On rainy days, you either go home or down to the shop to help work on the fire trucks.″

Tower watchers put in lighter hours during the summer, then go back to the seven-day-a-week routine for about a month in autumn when leaves fall and dry out. They spend the winter in the forestry department shop building new fire trucks from the frame up. The job pays $14,000 to $20,000 a year.

The curious sometimes ask to visit the towers, and Hasselhan never stops them.

″A lot of them reach the third flight and can’t make it because they get scared of the height,″ he said.

At 9:45 a.m. each day, Hasselhan checks the weather gauges at the foot of the tower. Then, after catching his breath from the long climb up the staircase, he checks in with Petrini in the Division C office in Mays Landing.

Division C covers still-forested sections of southern New Jersey including the Pinelands and has six towers, built in the 1930s, scanning a total of roughly 100,000 acres, Petrini said. Division A handles the northwestern corner of the state, and Division B has towers covering forests in the middle of the state.

As of Monday, more than 257 fires, most of them minor, have been doused in Division C, covering the state’s six southern-most counties.

A sheet on the tower’s wall lists nearby industries and power plants that emit smoke. Hasselhan points to a white cloud in the distance and explains it is from an asphalt plant.

″I know the difference after sitting up here all this time,″ he said. ″You know what smoke looks like. A house fire doesn’t move and looks black. A woods fire changes color and changes direction.″

When Hasselhan spots smoke, he immediately calls another tower to confirm it. They then locate the smoke with a surveying device and call the warden, who sends out a firefighting team.

Hasselhan has been a fire tower observer for almost four years. The novelty of having a ″terrific view″ wore off quickly, he said.

But the tower is just a preliminary stop in his career.

″I’d rather be out fighting fires,″ he said.

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