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Wood scientists inspecting Helena fire tower to recommend possible repairs

Posted at 6:04 PM, Jul 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-30 20:17:24-04

(HELENA) Two wood scientists are in Helena this week, to examine the city’s historic fire tower and make recommendations on possible repairs.

The city brought in the firm Anthony and Associates, based in Colorado, to conduct an assessment of the tower’s wooden beams.

“We’re focusing on the condition of the wood itself; we’re not structural engineers, so we’re not going doing a structural analysis,” said Ron Anthony. “There’s some deterioration, some past repairs where people have patched some things up, and the question is, ‘Well, is the timber in bad shape that needs to be replaced? Can it be repaired? Is it usable at all?’”

Anthony says they will be particularly focused on the base of the tower’s corner posts and on the connections where two pieces of wood are joined.

One of Anthony’s main tools is a resistance drill. It pushes a thin needle through a beam, registering the resistance it finds as a diagram that resembles an electrodcardiogram for the heart. A long flat section of the graph likely means the wood has internal decay.

The scientists will spend two days working on the tower. They will then take several weeks to do laboratory tests on wood samples and analyze their data. After that, they will put together a report on which parts of the tower are sound and which might need to be repaired or replaced.

The fire tower, known as the “Guardian of the Gulch,” has been overlooking downtown Helena for decades. The city has been working with the Montana Preservation Alliance and other community members to determine what should be done to restore and preserve the tower. Leaders have been wrestling with the issue since 2016, when the tower’s structural supports were damaged by a suspicious fire.

Because of structural concerns, the city is not able to put people onto the tower, which has meant they haven’t been to light it for the holidays as was traditional. Helena Parks and Recreation director Kristi Ponozzo said they are looking at possible short-term alternatives for lighting the tower this year, and then they hope to take more permanent steps to repair it.

Anthony said fire damage is a concern, but it doesn’t mean a beam can’t be salvaged.

“If you look at a piece of timber that is perhaps 10 inches by 10 inches, maybe it’s now less than that because some of it’s been burned away, but the remaining wood that’s sound, if it’s not deteriorated, that wood tends to be as good as the wood was essentially when it was new,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful much of the fire tower will still prove to be in good shape.

“There are some issues that probably need to be taken care of, either through repair or maintenance, but I don’t see any reason why this structure cannot be kept for decades to come as a landmark here in Helena,” he said.