Day 11 as a Volunteer Lookout, August 23, 2017

By | August 26, 2017

When my first hitch at Cyclone Lookout ended on July 26, I knew that I might be back.  Although there were several more volunteer lookouts scheduled to staff Cyclone for the rest of the fire season, there were gaps in the schedule.  Usually these gaps would not matter too much, but in a hot, dry fire season like this one, having continuous staffing at all of the Lookouts was paramount.  As a result, I offered to fill a gap of five days between two volunteer hitches staffed by Beth Hodder and Barb Penner.

Packing for a short stay is much easier than my usual hitch and my backpack was not overly heavy.  I did not pack my colorful flannel sheets and comfortable pillow. Instead, I opted for a sleeping bag liner and a backpacking pillow and planned to use one of the Forest Service sleeping bags at the Lookout.  Even though I carried up newly-harvested vegetables from the garden and plenty of fresh fruit, my pack was not very heavy.

When I parked my truck, there was a line of six large pick-up trucks left by the Alaskan fire crew who were hiking to the Lookout that morning.  I hoped that they would be able to slip by my vehicle without careening down the steep side of the road.  Before I had hiked a few hundred yards, the line of firefighters came hiking down the trail.  As they passed me, I noticed how young and physically fit they were, as well as polite.  I was greeted with smiles and good mornings as these gallant young warriors passed by.  I spoke to their leader at the end of the line about the truck jam and walked back with them to ensure that they could exit.  These firefighters had spent many days containing the Cyclone Lake Fire which was below the Lookout.  Now that the fire had been declared out, they were hiking to the Lookout to take a look from a different perspective before continuing their mop-up activities.  After they squeezed their trucks by mine, I parked near Beth’s vehicle at the trailhead.  Hoisting my pack on my back, I started up the trail enjoying the beautiful morning.

Beth and Scout | photo by Debo Powers

I arrived at the Lookout before noon and was greeted by Beth and her dog, Scout.  Beth and I exchanged information about the various fires in the Cyclone view-shed.  The Cyclone Lake Fire had left its dark smudge on the slope to the west of Cyclone Lake.  No flames or smoke were visible any longer.  Across the river in the Park, smoke was rising from the Adair Ridge Fire.  The Sprague Fire was not visible due to heavy smoke in the valley to the south.  Smoke was also drifting into the northern valley from the Gibraltar Fire near Eureka.  As the day wore on, the smoke haze increased making it difficult to watch for new fire starts.

As the winds picked up, I had to latch the screen door to keep it from blowing open.  A huge smoke plume formed over the Gibraltar Fire and smoke poured over the Whitefish Range into the North Fork Valley.  We found out later that 1,000 acres had burned sending up the plume of smoke.  From Cyclone Lookout, I could see a wall of smoke from the Moose Creek drainage north which stretched to the Livingston Range in the Park and started moving south along the mountains.

In the afternoon, I ran scenarios with Numa Lookout to practice with the magnetic map and overlays to determine the lat/long (latitude/longitude) of factious fires.  This type of practice keeps me ready to report a real fire if such a thing occurs.

Looking through smoke to find reported fire on Pocket Creek | photo by Debo Powers

Huckleberry Lookout called to ask if I could see a new smoke on Pocket Creek at the head of Bowman Lake that was reported by a hiker. None of the other lookouts could see the head of Bowman Lake because mountains were blocking their views. Although I could see down the length of Bowman Lake, the drift smoke from Gibraltar was so thick that there was no way to discern if there was a new smoke.  I kept looking for it with binoculars trying to penetrate the haze.  It was eventually determined that the hiker was reporting the Gibraltar smoke instead of a new fire start.

The hiker at Pocket Creek was not the only one to worry about the smoke from Gibraltar. People were starting to panic.  There was a report from a North Fork resident in the Trail Creek area that ashes were falling on her clean laundry drying outside.  A resident on Moose Creek Road spread a rumor by email that there was a fire on Akinkoka Peak in the Moose Creek drainage.  Another North Fork resident declared on Facebook that there was a fire on Nasukoin.  I got a call from someone in Polebridge who wanted to know where the fire was.

All of the Lookouts were in agreement that the smoke was coming from the Gibraltar Fire.  We could plainly see the smoke coming over the Whitefish Divide and down the Trail, Whale, and Moose Creek drainages.  However, we also understood that this fire season is causing more than a little fear among residents, visitors, and forest managers. A patrol plane flew across the landscape in Glacier Park to check for new fires, then flew the Moose and Whale Creek drainages just to make certain there were no new fire starts there.

Plume seen from Numa lookout | photo by Bill FordyceWhile the fire plume looked white from Cyclone and Huckleberry Lookouts, it was seen as a red inferno from Numa Lookout. Perspective is everything.

The wind blew furiously throughout the evening as the Gibraltar Fire continued to churn out smoke which crossed the Whitefish Range and settled in the North Fork valley.  By sunset, the peaks of Glacier National Park were barely visible through the smoke while the red sun painted the western sky. Cyclone Lookout was relatively free of smoke and it was nice to fall asleep with the gentle rocking of the tower and the whistling wind.

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