Day 16 as a Volunteer Fire Lookout, September 12, 2017

By | September 15, 2017

Morning hike inThe forest was quiet at dawn as I hiked up to Cyclone Lookout to begin my third hitch for the season.  When I left in August, I did not expect to be back on Cyclone although I had communicated my availability if needed.  With seven fires burning around the edges of the North Fork, the decision was made that I should replace Steve and Barb Penner when their hitch ended.  In the meantime, the Gibraltar Fire crossed the Whitefish Divide into the North Fork causing concern that it could travel down the Whale Creek drainage toward residences.

Arriving at cyclone Lookout at sunrise

The rising sun greeted me as I broke out of the forest into the clearing around Cyclone Lookout. 

Morning inversion

After climbing the tower, I gazed around at the landscape.  An inversion held clouds and smoke in the valley allowing some peaks to show but obscuring all of the ones in Glacier and Watertown Parks.

Kenow plume in early morning

After unpacking, making my bed, organizing my food, and displaying the American flag, I noticed with surprise that you could already see the Kenow Fire plume in Canada’s Watertown Park above the inversion.  Fire plumes do not usually show such vigor so early in the day, but this plume kept growing throughout the morning.  Smoke from the Gibraltar Fire was pouring down the drainages into the valley and making it impossible to see anything north of Moose Creek.

Smoky soup

The morning fire weather forecast called for red flag warnings.  The winds started to pick up after lunch. They whistled around the Lookout and made the flag flap furiously.  The winds brought more smoke and soon I was engulfed by a grey, hazy soup with very little visibility.  I passed the afternoon with the Lookout swaying in the wind and the radio crackling with information from fire fighters in the Whale Creek drainage.  I listened, but could not see anything.

I learned from the radio that a logging truck, loader, and feller buncher were assembled in the Whale Creek drainage for a logging operation around Ninko cabin for fire mitigation.

Gibralter plume in afternoon

In mid-afternoon, the Gibraltar column started to become visible.  Thoma Lookout and I tried to get azimuths on the base of the column so that we could determine if the fire was moving down the Whale Creek drainage.  This was very tricky to do since the column was drifting with the wind.  The Forest Service posted spotters at the end of Whale Creek Road so that they could watch to determine if the fire started moving in that direction.  A helicopter recon flight confirmed that Gibraltar was burning on the southeast face of Mt. Locke on the Whitefish Divide.

Typical fire behavior is characterized by better visibility in the afternoon when the fires get active and create columns.  However, on this afternoon so much smoke was moving into the North Fork valley from Gibraltar that visibility continued to be compromised.

2 plumes from Kenow fire in late afternoon

The Kenow Fire split in two and was sending up two separate columns that were visible by late afternoon.  It was reported that Watertown had lost its visitor center in this devastating fire.

In the evening, I spent time pacing the catwalk watching the smoke and the changing colors and shadows on the landscape and sky.  The setting sun infused everything with vivid color, including the inside of the Lookout when I snapped pictures from the catwalk through the windows.  I listened to fire crews on the radio checking-in for the night before bedding down.  Thoma and Huckleberry Lookouts relayed the information from fire crews in Whale Creek and Logging Creek to Kalispell Dispatch. 


I fell asleep with fires glowing in many directions.  The closest, the Adair Fire, looked like an army of separate campfires glowing on the darkened mountain-side with active torching on the western face of Wolf Gun Peak.  Sprague Fire sparkled in the distance.  A bright glow in the northern sky from the huge fires raging in Canada looked almost like Northern Lights.

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