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STORIES FROM THE ATTIC: Firefighting artifact

Forest fire ledger shows beginning of DEC forest rangers in the Adirondacks

August 11, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

RAY BROOK - It's been a fairly wet spring and summer this year, but when it gets dry for weeks at a time, the New York State Forest Rangers keep a close watch on forest fire danger in the Adirondacks.

In the early 1900s, fires ravaged thousands of acres of forest land in the Adirondack Park, particularly along railroad corridors. It caused alarm in Albany. The old system, created when the Forest Preserve was formed in 1885, wasn't working.

A new approach was needed, so the New York Legislature enacted new laws in 1909 to fight fires in the Adirondacks and Catskills. It was a game-changing moment, one that would lead to the establishment of the Forest Ranger Division in 1912 and the construction of more than 100 fire towers.

Article Photos

Forest Ranger Scott van Laer and the ledger
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

There's an artifact owned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that helps tell the story about firefighting in the Adirondack forest in the early 1900s. Speaking from Region 5 Headquarters in Ray Brook, Forest Ranger Scott van Laer recently unveiled a ledger that details some of the region's forest fires shortly after the 1909 laws were enacted. He is the historian for the state's Forest Ranger Division.

"This is a ledger that documented all the wild land or forest fires that occurred in what was then called District 3, which included the Adirondack counties of, parts of, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Herkimer and Lewis," he said. "What's really interesting about the ledger is it's the oldest documentation that we still have from this time period. It begins in 1910, and it goes up into the 1920s. This coincided with some legislation that changed in 1909, and this began what essentially what we know today as the forest ranger division."

There were a lot of fires in the Adirondacks in 1903 - the year the original Adirondack Lodge near Lake Placid was destroyed by fire - and in 1908 - the year of the fire at Long Lake West when 38 freight cars, a railroad station and a large hotel burned down. Most of that hamlet had to be evacuated by rail car.

After the 1909 legislation was passed, fire towers began going up on top of New York's highest mountains. The first one erected in the Adirondack Park, a wooden one, was placed on the top of Mount Morris near Tupper Lake. Another wooden one was placed on top of Whiteface Mountain that year. Later they were both replaced by steel structures. This was a new era in fighting forest fires in New York.

"The system that had been previously in place was from 1885," van Laer said. "It coincided with the act of that time. What they had in place then was called fire wardens, and they essentially designated people in towns and hamlets that they thought would function well to supervise putting out fires."

But the fire wardens were volunteers and were only paid when they were fighting a fire.

"After 1908, it became clear - after hundreds of thousands of acres burned and the entire hamlet of Long lake West burned - that it didn't work," van Laer said. "So the act of 1909 not only created what we know as the forest rangers, but it created the funds for the prevention system."

The new system was highly successful, which is evident on the pages of the DEC's firefighting ledgers.

"If you go through this documentation, you can see how the number of fires and acreage goes down over time," van Laer said. "And you can see where into the 1960s, there were so few fires, we got so good at our job, you actually saw the fire towers be abandoned and the fire tower observer's job eventually disappearing."

The ledger's pages show details such as the date, location, county, town, person who reported the fire and cost of fighting the fire.

"What the ranger would do at the time was they were authorized to hire people to fight these fires," van laer said. "Most of them were known as fire wardens, but they could hire anybody off the street to help fight a fire."

On the right side of the ledger, causes of the fires were listed, along with acreage burned, violations and remarks. Some of the causes are dated.

"You see railroads were big at the time, so you see them in here quite a bit," van Laer said. "I think what's interesting is you don't see a lot of natural fires, but there are some. You see some lightning that were a cause. What you see is they attach a cause a lot of times to the recreational activity, which I assume they were probably from campfires. They would delineate fishermen, camper, hiker, berry picker. So you see some terms the way they classify them the way we don't use today."

One cause states "Cigar stub."

"That is a good one," van Laer said. "Lumberjack smoking. That's another good one."



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