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His days all along the watchtower

The man atop Mount Massamet’s fire lookout

  • Herman "Butch" Meattey uses an alidade to discover the position of a fire in relation to the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Herman "Butch" Meattey uses an alidade to discover the position of a fire in relation to the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Herman "Butch" Meattey demonstrates how fire towers work together to determine the exact location of smoke when it is sighted.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Herman "Butch" Meattey demonstrates how fire towers work together to determine the exact location of smoke when it is sighted.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Herman "Butch" Meattey uses an alidade to discover the position of a fire in relation to the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Herman "Butch" Meattey demonstrates how fire towers work together to determine the exact location of smoke when it is sighted.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The view from the Shelburne Fire Tower on Mount Massamet on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

SHELBURNE — Looking out the window all day at work might result in a reprimand for most, but it’s exactly what Herman “Butch” Meattey is paid to do.

Meattey keeps a watchful eye over the county from the Shelburne fire tower on Mount Massamet, about 1,695 feet above sea level. It’s one of three fire towers in Franklin County and, built in 1909, it’s the only one made of stone. The others are located on Mount Grace in Warwick, and atop Sunderland’s Mount Toby.

“I’ve always liked it up here,” Meattey said Saturday. “This tower has the best view of the three.”

This is Meattey’s 10th year as a fire lookout for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. He spent his first year in a fire tower in Chicopee, and has been stationed in Shelburne ever since, though he’s spent time in the county’s other two towers as well.

He’s seen a lot of fires in that time, and some have been pretty close.

“My second year here, I was watching a train go through Shelburne Falls and I started to see flames between the cars,” Meatty recalled. “It lit about nine fires, likely from sparks coming off of the train.”

One of those fires burned clear across a field north of the village and toward buildings and Meattey watched as firefighters tried to extinguish it.

“It can be suspenseful,” he said. In the end, firefighters were able to put out the blaze before it reached nearby homes.

District Forest Fire Warden Phil Gilmore said trains were responsible for most brush fires when he started 35 years ago, but they’ve caused fewer in the last 20 years as rail use decreased.

Now, as the region prepares to host passenger trains again, he expects train-related brush fires to increase.

For the time being, though, most brush fires are the result of permitted burns that get out of control when the wind hits them, said Gilmore. There have already been a few this season.

Later Saturday afternoon, Meattey spotted one of these near the Greenfield transfer station. According to Greenfield firefighters, it was put out after scorching about half an acre.

A third cause of brush fires can send lookouts running for cover.

“When a lightning storm rolls in, I get down from the tower pretty quickly,” said Meattey.

It’s simply not safe to stay in the tower’s high cabin during an electrical storm.

“The tower is like a giant lightning rod,” added Gilmore.

Lightning destroyed the tower’s original stone cabin in the 1940s. That cabin had stood since 1912, three years after the tower was built. The current cabin was built in 1967.

Meattey shares the small cabin with radio equipment for the town’s highway and public safety departments. He’s got a telephone and a two-way radio of his own, to relay information to dispatchers, firefighters and other towers, an AM/FM radio to help pass the time, and a microwave to heat up his lunch.

At the center of each tower sits an alidade, a compass-like tool lookouts use to plot fires. If two lookouts spot the same fire, they can pinpoint it by triangulation.

“It’s accurate within one-quarter to one-half mile,” said Meattey.

Sometimes, however, it’s a little farther off. The cabin’s four corners and the frames between each wall’s windows create blind spots between the alidade and certain parts of the landscape, giving a margin of error of a couple degrees.

“Depending how far away the fire is, that could mean a couple miles of difference on the ground,” he said, and, it can also be hard to pin down a fire if the smoke is being blown by high winds, or it’s down in a valley.

Meattey was on his two-way often Saturday, communicating with the other towers to hone in on plumes of smoke.

Most were just people burning brush, the fires well under control. The open burning season is still in effect and many residents across the county took advantage of the warm weather to get rid of their brush piles.

“There were 172 burning permits in the county as of 10 a.m. and I’m sure people have called for more since then,” he said early Saturday afternoon.

It was good practice for the spotters, though, with new lookouts in the Mount Grace and Mount Toby towers.

With nine years in the Shelburne tower, Meattey’s gotten a grasp on the local geography. Spotting one small fire at 113 degrees, or east southeast, he knew by the distance that it was in Montague and was able to estimate it’s location pretty closely.

“I’d say that’s on Route 63, by Sirum’s,” he told the Mount Toby lookout. It turned out to be a permitted burn, under control.

Meattey said he’s had help in learning the lay of the land.

“Local fire chiefs come up sometimes, they love it up here,” he said. “It’s helpful for me, too. They look out and they can point out the different roads, even people’s houses.”

Now, he can easily estimate a fire’s location by simply looking at the landscape and counting the ridges between him and the smoke.

Lookouts do more than just spot fires.

“They keep us safe on the ground, too,” said Gilmore. “Butch can tell us if a fire is making a run in one direction, if it’s flaring up or dying down, or if the wind is changing — things you can’t see as well from the ground.”

He also relays information between dispatch and ground crews that can’t directly communicate by radio because of the hills and valleys.

The Massamet tower is the only stone fire tower still in service in the state. It was privately built, simply for the view, and permission was given to the state for use as a fire tower soon after, in 1911. The tower is still accessible to hikers.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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