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Fire towers and smoke jumpers

Fire towers

Information based on Fire in Focus, a joint Parks Canada and Waskesiu Heritage Museum program

Prince Albert National Park at one time had a network of six fire towers which played an important role in fire suppression.  Each tower was named after its location:

  • Blue Bell  (The first 5 were constructed in 1938.)
  • Summit
  • Wabeno
  • Sanctuary
  • Rabbit Creek
  • Boundary (constructed in 1940)

Photo above: Dr. Robert Tokaryk, seasonal resident at Waskesiu, volunteer at the Waskesiu Heritage Museum, and smoke jumper during his university days  standing beside the fire tower cupola at the Museum. Dr. Tokaryk was interviewed in August, 2016 about the fire towers and his experiences as a smoke jumper.

A tower person would either drive, walk, or be flown to a tower.  The cupola, originally an octagonal plywood structure, gradually became replaced with fiberglass and wood construction in the 1960s. The cupola was mounted on an 80 foot tower.

Each tower had basic accommodation, a one room cabin at the base of the tower, and a pit privy.  There was no electricity or running water and a wood stove was used for heating and cooking.  There was no bathroom in the fire cupola.

A tower person’s spouse and family would often stay with him/her while they were stationed at the tower.  They were posted at a tower for up to two weeks and worked 8 to 10 hours a day. They were responsible for keeping the grounds around the tower and cabin as well.

Each day the tower person checked in with the fire dispatch. A two-way radio linked the tower person to the fire dispatch.  The dispatcher provided a weather and fire hazard report and gave the tower person his/her hours of work for the day.  The hours varied daily according to the fire hazard.

Once in the tower, the person spends the day watching for smoke or signs of smoke.  He/she scans the land and sky and uses binoculars for a closer look if smoke is suspected somewhere.

During electrical storms, tower people were permitted to climb down from the tower to safety.  If the storm approached too quickly, the tower person might have to wait out the storm in the tower.  After the storm the tower person would keep his/her eye on any lightning strikes that may start a fire.

On a windy day, a tower person could feel the fire tower swaying.

In 1957 a tower person was paid $6.75 per day without provisions.  Today they would be paid approximately $18.00 an hour.

Fire towers are no longer used in Prince Albert National Park.  The towers were decommissioned in 2001 and replaced by helicopter smoke patrols. Fire towers are still used by the province of Saskatchewan.

The cupola at the Waskesiu Heritage Museum came from the top of Sanctuary Lake tower, just north of Grey Owl’s cabin.

In this clip, seasonal resident Dr. Robert Tokaryk talks about building fire towers during an interview with the curator, Chris Arnstead, in August 2016.

Fire Range Finding

During the summers when he was a university student, Dr. Tokaryk worked as a provincial smoke jumper based out of  La Ronge, Saskatchewan. He explains the instrumentation used by the tower person to locate and report fires in this video clip.

Ten for One

In this clip, Dr. Tokaryk talks about the food that was dropped from airplanes to fire fighters working on the ground – a “ten for one”.

Packing your own parachute

Dr. Tokaryk remembers about training to be a smoke jumper in this video clip.


Dr. Tokaryk enjoyed relating the pranks the smoke jumpers used to play on one another, especially during training sessions.

Underground Fires

In this clip, Dr. Tokaryk explains about fighting fires that burn underground.

The complete interview with Dr. Tokaryk is available to watch on DVD in the Waskesiu Heritage Museum. 

To learn more about fire suppression, visit the displays in the museum and ask the guide to tour the cupola. 

The importance of fire on the landscape (taken from Fire in Focus)

For many people the words “forest fire” conjure images of devastation and destruction. In the past, when a fire would start on the landscape, we would protect the forest and quickly extinguish the fire.  We now understand there are many benefits associated with forest fires.  The fire cycle in the boreal forest is typically 75 – 150 years.  In other words, every 75 – 150 years a fire is likely to burn an area and regeneration will follow.  By suppressing fires we have interrupted this natural fire cycle.

To protect the townsite of Waskesiu, Parks Canada established a fire break around the area.  For information about the fire break, visit the Parks Canada Nature Centre or the Visitor’s Centre.