Authors: Philip Connors
Tags: #Nature, #Animals, #Wildlife, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Sports & Recreation, #Outdoor Skills
Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
ntil about fifteen years ago I thought fire lookouts had gone the way of itinerant cowboys, small-time gold prospectors, and other icons of an older, wilder West. Then a friend of mine named Mandijane asked for my mailing address in Missoula, Montana, where we were both students in print journalism—one of the least timely courses of study in the history of higher education, though we couldn’t have known that at the time. M.J. said she’d soon have a lot of time to write letters. When spring exams were over, she’d be off to New Mexico to watch for fires.
I was intrigued, and more than a little envious; M.J.’s letters did not disappoint. She was posted in the middle of the Gila National Forest, on the edge of the world’s first designated wilderness, 130 miles north of the border with Mexico. On Loco Mountain, she said, not a single man-made light could be seen after dark. She lived in her lookout tower, a twelve-by-twelve-foot room on stilts. The nearest grocery store was five miles by pack trail and eighty-five more by mountain road. Over the course of four months she had fewer than twenty visitors—hunters on horseback, mainly, and a few adventurous hikers. The romance in those letters was almost unimaginable.
For years our paths diverged, though we always kept in touch by letter. I left school for New York and lucked into a job with the
Wall Street Journal
. Her continuing adventures took her to Ghana, Costa Rica, and Argentina. One spring she wrote to say she was back in the States for another summer gig in the Gila, this time at a different tower forty miles southeast of Loco Mountain. She knew I was busy, tied to a desk in New York, but suggested I take a vacation and come see the country, for a few days at least.
I needed no further urging. I’d already hustled too long and for no good purpose in the city, and when I finally looked out on that country with two dozen mountain ranges I couldn’t name, more mountains than a person could hope to explore on foot in a lifetime, I guess you could say I fell in love at first sight. And what a sight it was: a stretch of country larger than the state of Maryland, nearly 20,000 square miles of desert and forest, sky island mountain chains in three states and two countries. In the afternoons, when M.J. sat in the tower keeping watch, I hiked through old-growth fir and massive groves of quaking aspen. I was unaware of it at the time, but those aspen had grown back in the scar of what was, for almost half a century, the biggest fire on record in the Southwest: the McKnight Fire of 1951, which burned 50,000 acres along the slopes of the Black Range. Much of the fire crowned in mature timber, creating a massive stand replacement—the death of one or several tree species and their total succession by others. Though I could not see it yet, I’d been seduced on my walks by that fire, or at least by the effects of the fire, the beauty of the forest created in its wake.
Around our own little bonfire under starlight, M.J. told me she’d grown antsy in the lookout. She wanted to get out on a fire, inhale the smoke, feel the heat of the flames—and make some bigger money, overtime and hazard pay. Her boss was game, she said, if she could find him someone reliable to take over fire watch. By the time I had to hike out and head home, I’d talked myself into her job. She’d vouch for my backwoods bona fides—atrophied after four years in the city—and I’d fly to New York, offer two weeks’ notice at work, and be back before the moon was full again. I knew almost nothing about being a lookout except what I’d read in books, but what I’d read seemed promising. “It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout,” Norman Maclean had written. “It’s mostly soul.”
Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns.
Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is.
The work has changed remarkably little over the course of the past century, except in its increasing scarcity. Ninety percent of American lookout towers have been decommissioned, and only a few hundred of us remain, mostly in the West and Alaska. Nonetheless, when the last lookout tower is retired, our stories will live on. Jack Kerouac worked a summer on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades in 1956, an experience he mined for parts of two novels,
The Dharma Bums
. He secured the job through a recommendation by his friend the poet Gary Snyder, who worked summers on two different lookouts in the same national forest and wrote several fine poems about the experience. During the 1960s and ’70s the old raconteur Edward Abbey worked as a lookout in various postings, from Glacier National Park to the Grand Canyon. He wrote two essays on the subject and made a fire lookout the main character in his novel
, the book he claimed he loved most among all his works. And Norman Maclean, in his great book
A River Runs Through It
, wrote a lightly fictionalized story about his one summer as a lookout on the Selway Forest in northern Idaho, over the Bitterroot Divide from his home in Missoula, Montana.
Based on their reminiscences, I’m pretty sure the qualifications to be a wilderness lookout remain the same as they ever were:
• Not blind, deaf, or mute—must be able to see fires, hear the radio, respond when called
• Capability for extreme patience while waiting for smokes
• One good arm to cut wood
• Two good legs for hiking to a remote post
• Ability to keep oneself amused
• Tolerance for living in proximity to rodents
• A touch of pyromania, though only of the nonparticipatory variety
Between five and fifteen times a year I’m the first to see a smoke, and on these occasions I use the one essential fire-spotting tool—aside, of course, from a sharp pair of eyes, augmented by fancy binoculars. That tool is the Osborne Firefinder, which consists of a topographic map encircled by a rotating metal ring equipped with a sighting device. The sighting device allows you to discern the directional bearing of the fire from your location. The directional bearing—called an azimuth—is expressed by degree markings along the outside edge of the ring, with 360 degrees being oriented with true north. Once you have an azimuth, you must then judge the fire’s distance from your perch. The easiest way to do this: alert another lookout able to spot the smoke, have her take her own azimuth reading, and triangulate your lines. We lookouts call this “a cross,” as in:
Can you give me a cross on this smoke I’m seeing at my azimuth of 170 degrees and 30 minutes?
If this can’t be done—the smoke is too small to be seen by another lookout or its source is hidden by a ridge—you’re thrown back on your knowledge of the country. Protocol dictates that you locate each fire by its legal description, or what we in the trade simply call its legal: ideally within one square mile, by township, range, and section, the square-ruled overlay on American property maps.
A new smoke often looks beautiful, a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke in the air. You see it before it has a name. In fact, you are about to give it one, after you nail down its location and call it in to dispatch. We try to name the fires after a nearby landmark—a canyon, peak, or spring—but there is often a touch of poetic license involved. Some years there is more than one fire in a place called Drummond Canyon; knowing this, I’ll name the first the Drum Fire, the second the World Fire, keeping in my hip pocket the possibility of a third fire I can call Drummond. Or say a fire pops up in Railroad Canyon, but there’s already been a Railroad Fire that year. Something like Caboose Fire would be acceptable.
The life of the lookout, then, is a blend of monotony, geometry, and poetry, with healthy dollops of frivolity and sloth. It’s a life that encourages thrift and self-sufficiency, intimacy with weather and wild creatures. We are paid to master the art of solitude, and we are about as free as working folk can be. To be solitary in such a place and such a way is not to be alone. Instead one feels a certain kind of dignity. There are other lookouts on other peaks in the same forest with stunning stretches of country beneath them—ten of them still in the Gila, to be precise—but none of them quite like mine. Dignity and singularity: these are among the blessings of solitude in a high place.
I harbor no illusion that our job will last forever. Some in the Forest Service have predicted our obsolescence within a decade, owing to more powerful radios, more sophisticated satellites, even drone airplanes—the never-ending dreams of the techno-fetishists. For now we remain indispensable because the Gila is so rugged that direct communication between crews and dispatchers can’t be had from certain places. Lookouts are sometimes the only link to the outside world for backcountry crews of all kinds: fire, trails, Game and Fish. Just as important is the fact that we remain far less expensive than continuous aerial surveillance. Still, there’s little doubt I’m practicing a vocation in its twilight.
uring my time in the Gila, I’ve been witness to one of the most remarkable ongoing revolutions in land management ever undertaken by the Forest Service. For millennia fires burned here with no effort to suppress them. Only with the coming of the Forest Service in the early 1900s did that change, as the government used all the tools and tactics of warfare on what it deemed a deadly enemy. Almost from its infancy the Forest Service hewed to an unyielding goal: to suppress every single fire as soon as it was detected. In 1934 this approach was codified in the so-called 10 a.m. policy, the aim being to have a fire contained by 10 a.m. on the morning after it was first spotted, or, failing that, by 10 a.m. the next morning, and so on. For another several decades that remained the protocol on every single wildfire in the West. By the late 1960s, ecologists and fire officials had begun to understand just how badly the total suppression strategy had warped whole ecosystems. A tinderbox of thick fuels had built up, primed to explode.
Here on the Gila, the ancient fire regime consisted mainly of cool-burning surface fires moving through grass and open pine savannas, fires that consumed ground fuels but preserved the mature forest canopy. These fires recurred, on average, once or twice a decade until about 1900. Then, amid heavy livestock grazing and an absence of fire, piñon and juniper crowded onto grasslands where quick-moving ground fire had once kept the saplings in check. (Most careful scientists are quick to claim that climate may also have played a role in piñon-juniper colonization.) Ponderosa took hold in dog-hair thickets in the middle elevations, where fires had previously burned over large areas every two to eight years. In the highest elevations, the effects of fire suppression are less stark, since the subalpine belt of spruce and fir typically burned in stand replacements every hundred to three hundred years. Still, it seems safe to surmise that an absence of both small and large crown fires crowded the aspen, which thrive in places disturbed by fire. And no one disputes that as the twentieth century drew to a close, fires were burning hotter over larger and larger areas of the West, a result of the militaristic ideology that for most of the past hundred years painted fire as the enemy of forests.
In the 1970s, a small group of firefighters on the Gila began, tentatively at first, to experiment with an approach that upended three quarters of a century of Forest Service dogma. Having studied the effects of the suppression regime, they wondered whether it might benefit the health of the forest to return fire to the land. Initially called “prescribed natural fire,” this policy involved letting some fires burn unchecked toward the end of fire season, deep inside the wilderness, after the onset of rain had reduced the danger of a big blowup. The results were promising. The forest showed incredible resilience, green shoots of grass poking through the black within weeks or even days of a burn. Springs that hadn’t run in years began to flow again, no longer tapped out by unnaturally crowded vegetation. Emboldened by these experiments, fire managers began to allow larger burns earlier in the season, trying their experiments in various fuel types from semiarid grasslands on up to ponderosa savanna and even mixed conifer.