On watch: a tower calling

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LES HARPER moves quickly for a 68-year-old.

When a call comes through about a possible fire at Pioneer he darts outside his hut which sits at the rooftop of Tasmania's North-East. 

``Gee, if it's a fire she must be a small one,'' he says, peering through his binoculars. 

Maybe it's dust, he explains, before dissecting the difference between rising dirt particles and smoke. 

Mr Harper is a Forestry Tasmania ``tower guy'' - one of 12 who sit perched at 18 metres throughout summer protecting Tasmania's plantations, reserves and communities from the ravages of bushfire.

His domain is the alarmingly named Mount Horror (he assures it's just a shortening of Horritz and nothing to do with the tale told to kids about a madman with a penchant for decapitation) 10 kilometres north of Branxholm.

Not that his job is without the odd bit of horror.

Mr Harper's worst day was about seven years ago when Mount Stronach, also known as Kerosene Hill, went up in flames.  

``We had three fires here that day,'' he said.

``All on the same day within an hour. That was pretty scary, we didn't know what was going to happen, we had a 100K wind.''

And then there's the lightning storms. A few years ago a bolt came so close to hitting his tower that it fried his telephone.

One colleague was less lucky when his tower copped a direct hit. 

``I wondered why he was so nervous when he called,'' Mr Harper recalled.

``Lightning, that's the scariest because the cloud sits right on top of you and you can't see anything.''

There's also the heat - last week being the hottest he said he'd ever experienced - not to mention his fear of heights.

But to say Mr Harper loves his job would be an understatement - in 26 years he's taken off only three Christmas Days. 

In the winter he can hardly wait for the watching season to start.

From November to April, seven days a week,  you'll find him climbing the 38 steep stairs to his office with its charts, compasses, maps, radios and other tool of triangulation. 

From 10am to six at night, he radios in the weather -  temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and fire danger - on the hour, every hour.

The tower guys at Dazzler Ranger near Beaconsfield, Mount Arthur just outside Lilydale, Tower Hill at Fingal, Platts Hill west of  St Helens and at seven other sites across the state do the same.

The best part of Mr Harper's job is a no-brainer - the view. 

On a clear day he has the striking Mount Strzelecki on Flinders Island staring back at him and sometimes he can see Sheffield's Mount Roland 130 kilometres away.

``I've got the best view of all the towers,'' he said.

``This view it changes, every hour it's  different. See that fog it's moved over here now.''

When visitors, and there's the odd one, climb up ``they get a hell of a shock''.

Mr Harper described the job as being 90 per cent watching and 10 per cent panic.

When a fire does rear up the tower guys spark into action. 

A string attached to the ceiling is used to get a bearing from the compass written out on the tower's four sides. 

The bearing is applied to a large table map and the grid reference is radioed in to Forestry Tasmania. 

``Over time they've proved their weight in gold in terms of spotting something to throw resources at,'' Forestry Tasmania's community liaison officer Tony Scott said. 

``I admire these blokes, when we're at home enjoying summer they're up here.''

Not that Mr Harper would have it any other way. He might pause halfway up the steps these days but there's no plans for retirement just yet.

``When I can't climb the stairs I'll give it away,'' he said.

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