The wind was roaring around Cyclone Lookout creating a gently rocking motion as I settled into another hitch as a volunteer fire lookout. There was a “red flag warning” and all of the lookouts were on high alert as conditions for severe wildfire behavior increased. I had already lost my lookout hat on the catwalk as I watched it sail away in the wind. Even after scouring the slope below the lookout and searching for it with binoculars from the high tower, it won the game of hide-and-seek. Either it blew far away or it huddled in the brush, its green-brown earth tones becoming one with the native vegetation that covers the ground on this peak.
The morning at home had been a bit frenetic with two lookouts preparing backpacks to hike into separate Lookouts after a late night of square dancing and pie eating at the Community Hall. Although supplies and staples had been dropped by helicopter at Cyclone Lookout, I was fortunate to have North Fork friends (Bridget, Beth, Kevin, Sarah, and Eric) help me carry fresh fruit and vegetables up the trail. After a few interesting challenges along the way (which left me a bit discombobulated), I was able to radio Kalispell Dispatch that Cyclone Lookout was in service.
After unpacking, making my bed, and organizing my work space, I settled down to read manuals, look at maps, and re-acquaint myself with the job of being a fire lookout. Whereas full-time, paid lookouts spend most of the fire season living and working in their Lookouts, volunteers are only there for a hitch or two and have to re-learn the job all over again each year.
This year, I am at Cyclone Lookout rather than Baptiste Lookout and things are different here. Baptiste is an all-volunteer Lookout, whereas, Cyclone is usually staffed with a full-time, paid lookout. As a result, Baptiste is full of “cheat sheets.” I did not realize how much I had depended on them until I came to Cyclone and found none. The cheat sheets at Baptiste are meticulously written and display information that a shaky volunteer might need to know quickly, such as radio channels. All of this information can be found in the manual, of course, but the cheat sheets make beginners feel more competent. So, here I am on a real grown-up Lookout this summer and trying hard to act like a “real lookout” (while making my own cheat sheets)!
Throughout the afternoon with red flag warnings, the winds furiously beat against the lookout at 15-20 miles per hour with higher gusts that caused the tower to shiver and strain. By mid-afternoon, fires were being called in from all over the district. I wrote down the lat/long for each smoke report and plotted it on the map. This exercise served two purposes: (1) I knew where the fires were and (2) it gave me practice with the maps. I usually run scenarios when I start a lookout hitch, but today I could follow actual fires and listen to the helicopters and firefighters starting the attacks. I was pleased that Firefighter Lookout, staffed by a volunteer (Karin Connelly), called in the smoke that became known as the Emery Ridge Fire near the Hungry Horse Reservoir. It confirmed to me that we volunteers are real lookouts!
The best thing about working on Cyclone Lookout is that I am in my own neighborhood… standing guard over my beloved North Fork. I am intimate with this country. I can see the North Fork of the Flathead River as it curves across the landscape next to towering banks where I floated just a few days ago. I can name the ridges and peaks all around me, many of which I have hiked. I can see the cluster of rustic buildings that make up the tiny town of Polebridge where locals and tourists gather on Friday nights to eat pizza at the Northern Lights Saloon. With binoculars, I can see my cabin and greenhouse across the river from Big Prairie in Glacier National Park. From up here, I can see it all, this spectacularly wild place that is home to grizzlies, wolves, and other splendid creatures living in the cycle of predator and prey in this intact ecosystem that humans have learned to coexist in.
Fire is part of this system of birth, death, and re-birth. Fire is a natural part of this ecosystem, a force of nature. However, changes in the earth’s climate have pushed the normal boundaries of the fire season. Drier, hotter, longer summer seasons have increased the length and volatility of the fire season. The wildland/urban interface has increased as more homes are built in forest land. This puts more structures in danger of wildfire and puts more pressure on firefighting agencies like the Forest Service to throw resources in the path of fire to attempt to control or contain it. The Forest Service and the men and women who fight wildfires should be commended for their valiant efforts despite budget cuts and petty political maneuvering which denies them needed resources for both firefighting and forest management.
I am proud to work for the U.S. Forest Service serving my country and my community. I am proud to be sitting in this tower surrounded by millions of acres of public land that belong to all Americans and are open to fishing, hunting, and recreating while also ensuring that the plants and animals indigenous to this ecosystem can continue to thrive as well.
As the sun slipped below the mountains and the nighttime temperatures dropped, I took a moment to notice how grateful I am to be here…..in this moment…on this day….in this place.