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Towering passion

Bloomingdale man pursues his love of fire towers through restoration business

April 16, 2011
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer (jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

After retiring as an emergency dispatcher for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Bloomingdale resident David Vana had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He still needed to make a living.

So Vana decided to turn a passion of his into a business restoring and selling fire towers.

"I like doing this," Vana said. "It utilizes a lot of my background."

Article Photos

David Vana stands at the base of the restored Cornell Hill fire tower, which he just finished in Wilton last week. There will be an official dedication ceremony on May 14.
(Photo provided)

In addition to his time with the DEC, Vana also had a background of years of construction work, and he also earned a degree in design and engineering.

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Where it all began

Vana, who is 59 now, has always been a fan of fire towers. As a young boy of about 8, he climbed his first fire tower in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., with his family, and he immediately knew he wanted one.

"Every boy always wanted a fire tower after he climbed it," Vana said. "Sometimes you want the unachievable."

Then, a few years ago, Vana heard about two fire towers that had been taken down and disassembled and were for sale by some private owners. Vana mentioned it to a friend who does custom log work. His friend mentioned it to a client who has many Adirondack-style elements on his western Pennsylvania estate, and that client was interested.

By the time the idea was passed through the grapevine, those original fire towers were no longer available, but Vana and his friend found one standing in Maine that was for sale by a private owner. They bought it, took it down, put the disassembled pieces on a truck and shipped it to Pennsylvania. There, they put it back together next to a guest house.

Since then, Vana has formed a limited liability company called Davana. He has disassembled seven or eight fire towers and expects to have five put up by June.

The business doesn't make him rich, but it does help him support himself.

One of Vana's fire towers is for sale on eBay. It can be found by searching "Fire tower" from eBay's main page, and it's selling for $28,000. Vana said shipping and installation is extra.

On his business card, Vana printed the phrase, "for the kid inside you. ... a place from which to view your private world."

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The process

The process for each tower is a little different, Vana said.

Sometimes he will just sell a disassembled tower to a client who will install it on their own. In other cases, Vana will set it up himself.

He is on lists with several states that are regularly selling fire towers to be notified when one goes up for auction. When it does, Vana will submit a bid on it.

He's usually bidding against people who want towers for their private use or to sell them for scrap metal.

"My biggest thing is not letting them go to the scrap yard, which means they'd be shipped off to China and melted down and sold back to us in some other form," Vana said. "They're an American-made product that I restore right here in the States and make available again."

When he wins a bid on a tower, the first thing he does is check it to see if any of the parts have been compromised by rust or corrosion. The main body is typically made out of structural steel, with the steps and landings usually made of wood, which often needs to be replaced.

If any parts need replacing, he then works on finding or making replacement parts. He'll often replace windows and try to make them historically accurate.

On one tower that Vana recently installed in Wilton, he had to replace the x-braces that held the tower's frame together because the ends were rotten. He cut steel to length, punched holes in it and forged the ends flat, creating exact copies of the original ones.

"I could manufacture a whole new tower, but that's not what we want to do," Vana said. "We want to restore as much as we can."

The Wilton tower also needed to be shipped off to be commercially re-galvanized, which is a process through which a molten zinc coating is put on the steel to protect it for about 50 years.

If the tower needs a lot of work, Vana will send it from the site he gets it from to his Bloomingdale home for restoration after it's taken down. If it doesn't need much, he'll ship it directly to the new site and do the work there. Some towers just need a "basic fluff and buff," a coat of paint and some touch-ups here and there, Vana said.

While he and his crews are working, they wear plenty of safety gear at all times. They have on hardhats, steel-toe boots and a harness that clips them in so they can't fall more than 4 feet.

Vana usually works with a crew of three to five people.

When they are on site and ready to install a tower, they first put in a foundation. Then they piece the tower back together, replacing nuts and bolts that need it along the way.

In some places, Vana has to add some touches, depending on the tower's planned use. For example, the tower he installed in Wilton is in a public park and will be used by the public year round, so Vana had to add expanded metal mesh stairs and landing treads so the surfaces are non-skid in any weather condition.

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The towers

In the fire tower heyday, Vana said there were three or four companies that manufactured them. The most common, Aermotor, was a windmill company that expanded into building fire towers when it found a market for them.

There are no longer any companies that manufacture fire towers, Vana said.

Using fire towers to spot fires in New York was replaced in the 1970s by air patrols, which were later phased out after the need for them waned, according to "Adirondack Fire Towers," a book by fire tower enthusiast Martin Podskoch.

Most of the towers Vana buys come from other states and were manufactured in the 1950s or '60s, a little newer than the ones in the Adirondacks that mostly date back to the 1910s and '20s.

Vana's towers are also mostly taller than the Adirondack fire towers, averaging about 100 feet, compared to the local ones, which generally range from 40 to 60 feet tall, because they're from areas where they aren't sitting atop high mountains.

Vana does have one local fire tower now, from the top of Moosehead Mountain in Colton. It was installed in the 1910s, so it needs a lot of work. He's building a new roof and doing a full restoration of the tower.

Because that tower is from the Adirondacks, he said he'd like to set it up on his own property after restoring it, at least temporarily.

If he does find a buyer for it, he said he'd like one that will keep it in the area.

"It's an indigenous fire tower, it's not one I dragged in from somewhere else," Vana said.

Vana said he appreciates the history of fire towers. The DEC recently threatened to remove a pair of fire towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains because they didn't fit the wilderness land classification of the areas. DEC then decided to let them remain after public outcry, a decision Vana said was a good one.

"I don't see them as obtrusive," Vana said. "They've been here 100 years. They were used to develop the area. They're part of the history. They were used to protect the timber resource from fire, and the timber resource was a major industry from here."

He said that nowadays, the towers serve as a good way to educate people about both the history of the Adirondacks and the land here because they give better views of it.

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For more information about fire towers, go to the Forest Fire Lookout Association's website at www.firelookout.org.

 
 

 

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