The wind whistles outside rattling the windows, shaking the structure, and whispering secrets to this old lookout that is my home for the next week. Dark grey clouds cover the sky in a persistent march from west to east. Occasionally, rain splatters against the west windows and bounces off the catwalk. This is an unusually grey day in a record dry fire season that has left everyone on alert for fire starts. The radio squawks continuously with the chatter from firefighters, helicopters, and lookouts communicating with Dispatch.
I continually scan the landscape looking for smoke. I’ve been here less than 24 hours and there has been a lot of fire activity. The fire below Scalplock Lookout has been put out. Smoke was reported on Flattop Mountain, Logging Ridge, and Kintla Lake and lookouts are watching where lightning strikes hit around Bowman and Quartz Lakes. This is a busy year. With the forest fuels so dry, any lightning strike can bring instant fire. This is a year for full suppression techniques and the lookouts in their towers are relentless in their vigil.
I am a volunteer fire lookout assigned to Baptiste Lookout in the Flathead National Forest for eight days. Other volunteers come before and after me during the season. Yesterday, I hiked the six miles up to the lookout carrying a load of food with a friend who carried a load for me as well. Before reaching the top, we passed the volunteer lookout who I was replacing and exchanged radios and information. Being back at the lookout felt like returning to a former home–familiar and novel at the same time. After checking in with Dispatch, I unpacked my pack and organized my few belongings in the lookout. Betsy had packed elk for dinner and along with vegetables from my garden, we had quite a feast. The night was filled with a million stars and the wind blew continually almost sounding like the ocean.
After a breakfast of elk and eggs, Betsy left to hike back out and I was left to the solitude of lookout life. The world around me is one of folds and creases in the landscape–mountains, hills, drainages, and the reservoir below. Every peak and drainage has a name and these must be reviewed each year to be familiar with them again. I am glad that I left notes above the windows with the names of the most prominent features.
This morning I have been practicing….pretending that I see smoke on one of the many undulations of land around me. I practice the sequence of steps……I take an azimuth using the Osborn Fire Finder. I look at maps to determine the Township, Range, and Section. I fill out a Smoke Report. (If this was an actual smoke, I would consult with other nearby lookouts to use triangulation to pinpoint the spot as close as possible.) I practice in order to be ready so that if I do spot smoke, I can report it effectively and professionally.
Another friend called today to say that she was hiking up with her backpack and tent to spend the night. I hoped that she would bring either chocolate or fresh fruit.
I like big landscapes. I like windows that open out into a countryside that stretches for miles beyond. Living in a one-room window-rich house, no matter how tiny, is like living in a huge mansion. The sides of the room encompass a huge expanse. And when that landscape has no streets, electric wires, vehicles, or buildings that you can see, the result is a feeling of freedom and exhilaration that is unsurpassed. With only the sound of the wind and the dancing of the clouds a short distance above the roof, the feeling of peace and serenity is complete.