Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Tractor and plow on a tilting platform trailer. © DNR File

Loading a tractor and plow on a tilting platform trailer in 1935 in Lincoln County.
© DNR File

June 2014

Back in the day

Two emerging technologies ushered in a new era of fire control.

Kathryn A. Kahler

In a decade when landowners still used a horse and wagon to escape an encroaching forest fire, state fire control personnel were introducing state–of–the–art equipment and techniques like tractor plow units, pumpers and well–jetting to their arsenal. Two technologies — "portable" radios and airplanes — stood out among them and warrant a closer look.

According to a report in the Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin in February 1940, Wisconsin Conservation Department Communications Engineer Laurence F. Motl described how the airplane helped forest protection agencies make headwind in public safety and fire suppression efforts.

"Generally speaking, some of the uses of an airplane in forest protection work are for transportation of materials, scouting fires, aerial control of fires, reconnaissance work, mapping generally and burned over areas in particular, locating tower sites, impressing the public with the need of fire prevention measures and rapid transportation of executives.

"The U.S. Forest Service has developed a system whereby aerial pictures can be taken, developed, printed and dropped by an inexperienced person in 18 minutes or less. The value of this is readily seen. On any large fire the picture of the actual conditions put in the hands of the fire boss give him up–to–date information which is accurate. No form of ground reconnaissance could approach the speed or accuracy of such information.

"Because of our airport and hangar facilities at Tomahawk we have been able to make a trading arrangement with a local airplane owner whereby in exchange for storage of the plane we may use the plane on forest fire work a certain number of hours each year. The plane concerned is an Aeronca K, 40 h.p. monoplane. Experience has shown that it has several disadvantages for efficient application to our work in that its cruising speed is too slow, its rate of climb too low and its cruising range rather limited. Nonetheless we feel we have benefited greatly by its use. We installed one of our field SV radio sets in the plane and found that we could communicate remarkably well over ranges as great as 65 miles to our various tower stations.

"We at Tomahawk firmly believe as a result of our own experience and observations that the airplane must of necessity eventually be recognized as a tool for the suppression of forest fires which will be considered as essential as tractors, plows, pumpers, and, if you will, even our old friend, the back–pack can."

Five months later, a report in the July 1940 issue of the Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin pronounced "the use of portable radio sets in the field for forest fire control work [to be] a new epoch in firefighting development. The USFS type SV portable radiophone has been found to be the most practical type for field work. The working range of this set varies with topographical and atmospheric conditions with a maximum range of 80 miles between advantageously located stations. Independent transmitting and receiving stations are mounted on the same chassis. All batteries are contained in the set cabinet and the same antenna is used for receiving and transmitting. The weight of the set, complete with batteries, is 18 ˝ lbs. and its compact construction makes it easily portable over rough terrain."

Seems humbling, doesn’t it, how in this age of global communications, when 90 percent of adults in the United States use 4–ounce cellphones that can instantaneously send a photo around the globe, that just 74 years ago we were singing the praises of dropping photographs from an airplane and communicating 80 miles with an 18 ˝–pound radio? Humbling indeed.

Kathryn A. Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.