Vernal Express: Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A towering recognition

Place honored for years on the watch
By Mary Bernard
Barb Zinn
A memorial built below the tower by Steve Rasmussen, fire ranger in the 1980s, and his family reads "Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great." The quote is credited to U.S. historian John L. Motley.
A view of the Round Top Fire Tower from the cliff.

The original fire "tower" was a cabin constructed around 1951 by the National Park Service and occupied by John and Jean (standing in the doorway) Polhamus.
Susan Epstein and fire tower ranger Phil Schultz stand before the new tower, displaying the plaque from the National Historic Lookout Register, maintained by the American Resources Group of Washington, D.C.

Round Top Mountain's forest fire tower sits on top of a windswept knoll aptly named Buena Vista Peak.

At 8,575 feet above sea level, the solitary structure overlooks the much of the 72-mile-long Yampa River Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument.

On June 2, the National Historic Lookout Register, maintained by the American Resources Group of Washington D.C., honored Round Top's lookout for 50-plus years of seasonal fire watch.

"The Colorado-Utah Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and the National Historic Lookout Register recognize the many years of fire-watching from this place," said Susan Epstein of the Association. "Round Top Mountain's lookout oversees hundreds of miles of resources in three states."

The view encompasses a panorama to the north of Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, east and south to the Bears Ears and Blue Mountains\ in Colorado and west to Utah's High Uintas.

Early fire rangers at the Round Top lookout were John and Jean Polhamus. In 1953, they began their fire-watching career when there was no tower, just a plywood cabin.

The winds, according to Jean Polhamus' journal entries, were brutal.

"Everything was held down by a piles of rocks, but the cabin was bolted to the rock. Behind the cabin and some distance away were the remains of a previous cabin which had been blown apart by the wind. Very little was left," she wrote.

A series of fire-watch rangers for Dinosaur National Monument have operated the tower over the years, including Steve Rasmussen in the 1980s, whose children beat hours of tedium by building a stone memorial.

The plaque "Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great" is set on top of their monument overlooking the cliffs of the Yampa River at Castle Park some 3,000 feet below.

Today, tower ranger Phil Schultz, who has manned Round Top's seasonal fire lookout since 1990, says accommodations have improved dramatically.

In 2002, the old cabin was replaced by a newer structure that stands 20 feet above the cliffside, with a mobile-home trailer at the base.

Over the years, fire-watching technology has changed. Satellite phones, radios and cell phones assist in early detection. As does an electronic repeater powered by solar panels situated at the base of the Round Top tower.

Still, romantic solitude remains.

Susan and Lenny Epstein of the Colorado-Utah Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association met and married over a season of fire-watching in the early 1970s while acting as fire spotters in northern California.

Through it all the trials of operation have changed and the duties of the fire lookout remain the same. From their high vantage point much of the day is spent surveying the landscape for the telltale smoke of fire.

Access to the Round Top fire tower is not open to the public because the roadway crosses private land. Still, the tower may be seen from the roadway Moffat County 14 that traverses the Yampa Bench below.

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