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Retired DNR forester called back to action

When the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing and the humidity is low, Keith Simar goes to work. The retired Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forester dons his backpack and hikes a narrow, winding path through the woods, then climbs 135 ste...

Keith Simar, retired Department of Natural Resources forester, looks out an open window in the cab of the Pequot Lakes fire tower. He mans the tower looking for possible wildfires. Photo by Nancy Vogt
Keith Simar, retired Department of Natural Resources forester, looks out an open window in the cab of the Pequot Lakes fire tower. He mans the tower looking for possible wildfires. Photo by Nancy Vogt

When the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing and the humidity is low, Keith Simar goes to work.

The retired Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forester dons his backpack and hikes a narrow, winding path through the woods, then climbs 135 steep steps to perch 100 feet in the air.

His office undoubtedly offers the most scenic view of any in the lakes area.

Simar's office is atop the 80-year-old Pequot Lakes fire tower off County Road 11. From about noon to 5 or 6 p.m. on high wildfire danger days, he carefully scans the horizon from above the treetops for smoke. He can see about 20 miles in any direction, and has seen the landscape change daily as leaves emerge on trees and the view slowly turns from gray to green.

"It's great to see the aspen greening up, but the grass is still dry," said Simar, who spent 40 years with the DNR in a variety of positions before retiring in 2010.

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"It's reminiscent of when I first started (in 1971)," Simar said of manning the tower. "That is something every trainee used to get - a chance to sit in a fire tower."

The spring fire season lasts roughly through April and May, and Simar has manned the Pequot Lakes tower for nearly 20 days since the end of March. The tower had been closed for a while for safety reasons before being restored and reopened to the public in 2012. Simar worked with the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association to reopen the tower to visitors.

Curt Cogan, DNR Area Forestry supervisor in Backus, was instrumental in reopening the tower to fire detection this spring. Only about a half dozen fire towers in Minnesota remain in use, including the tower in Nimrod. Cogan saw the benefit of again using the Pequot Lakes tower.

Last Thursday, April 30, Simar sat on his stool in the tower's cab, scanning the view with binoculars. He has a plat book to reference and log book, as well as a map on the wall. Voices from a DNR radio frequently broke the quiet. A pleasant breeze blew through an open west-facing window as Simar explained his job.

When he spots smoke, Simar uses an alidade, which is similar to a 360-degree compass and is perched in the middle of the tower's cab, to line up the location. He calls the DNR dispatch office via radio to report the reading, and the office uses a map to pinpoint where the possible fire is.

He pointed to a plume of smoke out the eastern windows, saying that was a gravel pit burning. He later spotted another plume of smoke to the southwest and called it in to dispatch.

The DNR has two airplanes circling the area on one-hour flight patterns as well.

There used to be fire towers in the Brainerd, Cuyuna, Nisswa, Emily and Spider Lake areas that could be seen from the Pequot Lakes tower using binoculars, Simar said. They all used the triangulation system with the alidade to pinpoint a fire's location.

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Simar keeps a detailed log of his activity and he records the number of visitors to the tower. Since he's been in the tower he's had 116 visitors, including quite a few tourists staying at Breezy Point Resort.

"Or the grandpa with grandkids saying, 'I climbed this when I was a kid,'" Simar said.

Visitors are still welcome to hike to and climb the tower. When Simar is there, he'll gladly open the trap door to welcome visitors into the cab and educate them about the fire tower and DNR fire detection.

"It would be sad to lose this part of history because towers around the state are being torn down," Simar said.

Related Topics: PEQUOT LAKES
Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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