Letters & Essays

Diary of a Fire Lookout

Philip Connors



June 1

 

More than four inches of rain fell in May—very unusual. This season has felt more like a paid vacation than work. So far.

I was taking a nap in the tower this afternoon when a group of maybe three dozen ravens came overhead, calling to each other and circling. They wheeled and dipped and sang cronk, cronk, cronk. Two or three would fly seemingly straight up in the air, corkscrewing around each other, and then they would break apart and float away in big looping curlicues. Eventually they drifted off to the north.

As the sun moves overhead the dog likes to sit in the shadow cast by the tower. Like me she is mostly indolent, but also like me she serves as a first-alarm system, a lookout in canine form: at the first sight or sound of hikers she barks and howls to let me know our solitude is about to be sullied.

      
June 4

 

A thrill today: first fire of the year, for me anyway—the Loco Fire, just northwest of Loco Mountain. A little plume of gray-white smoke twenty-two miles as the crow flies. It showed at five o’clock. I got a cross from Black Mountain, so we knew it to the quarter section. To be the first to spot a smoke is a sublime feeling. You know you’re the only person in the world who sees it. A new smoke often looks beautiful: a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing little fingers of smoke in the air. You see it before it even has a name. In fact, you are about to give it one, after you pinpoint where it is 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. I might have called the Jackass Fire, spotted by the Mogollon Baldy lookout this morning and named for Jackass Park, simply the Ass Fire, to see if I could get away with it. Worked when I named the Drum Fire after Drummond Canyon last year.

      
June 6

 

Simply being in the tower tests my resolve today. The wind gusts to near eighty miles an hour—my anemometer only goes to seventy, and the little ball marker shoots straight to the top, signaling a reading off the chart. The dog took one look out the door of the cabin this morning and went back to bed. Standing in place in the tower I feel like I’m dancing the jitterbug. There is a lip of metal overhang to the tower’s roof, to shunt off the rainwater, and when the wind gusts the overhang sounds as if it’s going to bend or snap upright and shear the roof off. Those CCC boys did a marvelous job erecting this old tower, still sturdy after seventy years in a high and windy place. Sturdy, but not impervious to an eighty-mile-an-hour wind. Luckily there are no big fires at present, and none along the Mogollon or Black Range crests, or they’d be hurling burning pinecones a quarter mile ahead and starting spot fires a dozen at a time. The Loco Fire is down in the low country, where the winds are much lighter. With all the rain we’ve had it hasn’t burned very hot yet at all—maybe a few dozen acres.

I hung on in the tower all day except for lunch and another break mid-afternoon. The guy-wire cables twirled like jump ropes. I couldn’t write or read. I lay on the cot with my eyes closed listening, rising now and then to make sure no fool had left a campfire unattended or thrown a cigarette from a car. The wind was a menacing symphony, discordant and brutal in the trees. An awesome performance—though not a show I’d pay to see again.

      
June 13

 

As a lookout in high country, I often tell people I get paid to look at trees. But I find myself lately thinking more and more of grass. For millennia fire and grass worked in tandem here. Grass burned quickly and fertilized the soil, from whence came more grass. Fires moved quickly through the forest understory, rarely torching in treetops. Fire kept the saplings in check. Trees lived in mature stands where most were hundreds of years old. An ancient juniper from the heart of the Gila shows that fire burned around it, on average, every seven years; fire helped it thrive. Ponderosa covered much of the forest in open parkland with trees forty to sixty feet apart, surrounded by grass.

Then, in the nineteenth century, the cow arrived.

The grass fires became fewer, brush began to encroach on grassland; piñon and juniper crept down the foothills. With the coming of the Forest Service at the beginning of the twentieth century, two values prevailed: respect for cattlemen and disdain for fire. The goal became to put out every fire by ten o’clock the morning after it was spotted. As late as 1826 a white explorer reported being “fatigued by the difficulty of getting through the high grass, which covered the heavily timbered bottom” of the Gila River drainage. The cattle that came soon after devoured the grass, trampled the stream beds, pushed the Gila trout to the edge of extinction, and subsisted many places with the aid of stock tanks rigged to capture running water. Low elevation canyons saw beaver slaughtered for the whims of Eastern fashion; dammed wetlands were drained and with them went the waterbirds. A century of fire suppression allowed the fir and pine and spruce to grow unchecked in the higher elevations, crowding out the aspen, which love big stand-replacement fires. Brushy ladder fuels took hold and created a link to old-growth crowns; the fires became harder to suppress, so the Forest Service responded with ever more military technology: airplanes, helicopters, chemical drops, a full-scale techno-industrial war on fire.

Now, for the first time, we see catastrophic fires that burn so hot they sterilize the soil on tens of thousands of acres. Prescribed fire is needed more than ever but has been used too capriciously, too often, diminishing the constituency of the reasonable. (Burn down someone’s house with an intentionally lit fire and see if you win a friend.) “Wildland fire use” fires are the preferred tool here now: fires started naturally by lightning and allowed to burn within predetermined areas, mostly within the wilderness, far from human settlements. Burn, baby, burn—that is the mantra now in the Gila, and for that reason among others this place is healthier than most places like it in the West. But does it even remotely resemble its optimum post-Pleistocene state? Not by any means. Too many cows, too few fires.

Yet much of what makes the Gila special remains unchanged over the centuries. The shark-fin shapes of mountains, mist in the canyons, the smell of smoke like a whisper of campfire when the forest burns. Deep red cliffs along the river. Because it’s been protected, it’s been saved from irreversible destruction. We’ve done our best to sully it, of course, and global warming may yet do it in, but certain local restraints have thwarted us. Leopold came to believe in restraint, though not before succumbing to hubris. He helped exterminate Mexican gray wolves. He believed in total fire suppression. He later found his way out of the traps of conventional thinking and saw the world whole, as an almost infinite series of interlocking relationships, grass benefiting rivers, rivers benefiting beaver, beaver benefiting elk, elk chased by wolves, wolves thus ensuring more even browsing of grass, and grass at the center of a hundred or a thousand other relationships. Grass and fire.

      
June 15

 

Yesterday the clarity of the view was as good as it’s been all season. Mountain range upon mountain range like a sea tide crashing on the horizon: the Caballos and Sacramentos, the Organs and Franklins and Floridas, the Tres Hermanas, the Cookes Range, the Peloncillos and Chiricahuas and Burros, the Silver City and Piños Altos Ranges, the Jerkies and Diablos and Mogollons, the Black Range, the Wahoos, the San Mateos. A world of more mountains than a man could walk in a lifetime. I sit trancelike in the tower and feel myself begin to empty, to disappear almost, in the immensity of the country all around.

      
June 17

 

Two weeks on and the Loco Fire still burns, working its slow way through piñon and juniper country, burning coolly in the grass and brush, torching a few trees here and there but not many. It can’t have burned more than a few hundred acres. If the weather cooperates it could burn for another month just the way a fire should—not catastrophically, leaving behind sterilized soil and torched old growth, but gently, burning up the understory and reinvigorating the grass.

After my lunch hour, the first thing I see when I reach the top landing of the tower is a little plume of white smoke about eleven miles north. Fire! I call Lookout Mountain on the radio.

I see it, she answers.

From my position it’s at eight degrees; from hers, one hundred and sixty-six degrees. I run our lines on the map, cross them, and mark the spot. Township 14 South, Range 9 West, Section 3. I take a few deep breaths, try to even the flow of adrenaline coursing through my veins, and call dispatch with the news. The Lake Fire—right in the bottom of North Seco Creek, near some ancient lake beds.

      
June 18

 

I wake at six A.M. and make a pot of coffee, climb with it up the tower. I check in with the Lake Fire folks, and as I’m talking with them on the radio I see another smoke about seven miles south of theirs. A whitish smoke, its source obscured by Granite Peak, the drift blowing and dispersing to the east. I line it out and call it in: twenty-one degrees from me, Township 15 South, Range 9 West, Section 15. The Granite Fire.

It’s going to be a busy day of radio chatter. I don’t mind: I’ve done enough brooding for a while. Time to work a little. If you’re going to be a lookout you’ve got to prepare yourself for the fact that everything can change in a moment. Two weeks of silence on the radio, quiet on the forest, immaculate weather, hikes in the evening after six o’clock—gone in a puff of smoke!

*  Obscured by Granite Peak indeed—turns out, after a helicopter recon, that I was off by six miles on the Granite Fire. Not a record, not even close—I’ve known lookouts to be off by double-digit mileage—but still. Six miles . . .

The Granite Fire has grown to two hundred acres. Much of the burn was in grass, where it moved quickly with minimal smoke. I’m accustomed to watching fires in timber so would have guessed it was much smaller. My boss has decided to let both fires burn, a sensible move. Steep terrain, deep canyons, far from any human settlement: no sense risking life and limb trying to suppress such fires. Rain is predicted by Wednesday. That will slow them some. They may yet burn for a month or more, a few acres here, a hundred acres there, several thousand all told. Depends on weather and fuels.

      
June 19

 

Up at five A.M. to make coffee. In the tower and on the radio at six. In the predawn light open flame is visible on the Granite Fire, little shifting dots of orange on the ridge tops. The wind has shifted and now blows out of the east, sure sign of impending storms. The forecast says dry lightning possible, winds of up to forty miles an hour.

By six P.M. the Granite Fire had burned more than nine hundred acres.

      
June 21

 

I will hike out today when Natalie, my replacement, arrives. I’m ready, this time, for a few days off. I’ve spent forty-four of the last seventy-two hours in the tower, and while I never feel claustrophobic, I do prefer a balance between sitting all day in a seven-by-seven room and all the other joys of the job—a morning and an evening walk, coffee on the porch in the sun, a game of Frisbee golf in the meadow. Exhaustion sets in after a few days of intense watching of the landscape, nonstop chatter on the radio, dawn till dark. Physical exhaustion is a piece of it—tired eyes, too few hours of sleep. But the exhaustion is more mental. The adrenal thrill of being a small part of a big fire wears off, but one’s powers of concentration mustn’t wane. More than anything, right now, I want to drink an ice-cold beer in a bar thick with smoke and conversation.

Yesterday the Lake Fire grew to one hundred and thirty-two acres, the Granite to eighteen hundred and twenty-six. The Lake more than quadrupled in size; the Granite doubled. All’s well. Ops normal.

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