- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

YOUNGSTOWN, Fla. (AP) - Cell phones and vigilant residents are slowly replacing a one-time staple in fighting wildfires - the fire tower.

There once were 20 fire towers in the Chipola River District, which stretches across seven counties in Florida’s Panhandle. But that number has recently been cut to seven.

Florida Forest Service spokesman Brian Goddin tells the News Herald of Panama City (http://bit.ly/1fKinkb ) that people in the district may not have even missed the towers. But the state actually auctioned off several of them five years ago.

In fact, the Forest Service doesn’t even own Bay County’s only fire tower. It belongs to the sheriff’s office. That tower has a camera and radio transmission equipment in it.

Goddin says lookouts in the towers once spotted fires and communicated with lookouts in other towers to determine a fire’s size.

“These are … a dying piece of equipment for us,” Goddin said.

But cell phones, airplanes and technology haven’t totally replaced the towers.

Jacob Beam, a forest ranger from Youngstown, said he still goes to the Bay County tower when he hears of a fire.

“Most of the time we just look and get a general direction,” he said.

He still talks to a lookout in neighboring Calhoun County. Chris Crocker has worked as a lookout there for about 20 years, eight hours a day.

“I guess you could say I’m constantly scanning,” she said.

Sometimes she may just see one fire a month, but more during months, like November, when the leaves are falling.

“You really have to be a laidback person to do this job,” she said.

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Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com

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