Waking to a landscape of grey soup, I was slow to pop out of bed. The sun was making a valiant attempt to send its power through the smoke and warm the Lookout. Even though Coal Ridge was a mere outline in the smoke, the Moran Patrol Cabin was a brilliant white dot reflecting the morning sun. I woke feeling refreshed. There had been no radio traffic during the night and I slept long and hard.
The Whale Butte IC reported that the fire held inside the retardant line and he requested helicopter 15 Fox for bucket work at 1200. Visibility was about one mile in the morning, but the hope was that it would clear somewhat. Thoma Lookout commented that the 5000 acres burning north of the border had been pumping smoke into the valley at night.
Coal Ridge reported that the fire line and fuel break construction was going well and that the fire had been “sitting down”….so far.
My first few years as a volunteer lookout, I was focused on all of the basic information and making sure that I was doing everything correctly. I made lots of the typical mistakes, such as not changing my radio channel when someone called me on a different channel. Each mistake taught me something. As I have grown more comfortable with the job of lookout, I want to know more. This year, my curiosity has seemed endless and I have been studying the “Handy Dandy Guide” for Fire Management to try to find out more about engines and aircraft and modules and initial attack and fire suppression and many more things that I had never really understood. It is fascinating what goes into fire fighting.
From listening on the radio, I know how hard everyone is working and how difficult some of the decisions are. I sometimes feel annoyed by those who sit on the sidelines, like armchair quarterbacks, and complain about fire management when they aren’t on the frontlines and they don’t have all of the information about conditions on the ground. In my mind, all of these fire people are heroes…..doing the best that they can against powerful forces.
It was a very calm, smoky, uneventful day, although the radio was fairly busy at times with most of the action happening outside of the North Fork. There was a new initial attack at the southern end of the Forest and most of the resources were going there and then to the Howe Fire. It was a very busy day for fire managers who were transitioning to the Type 1 Team.
Lookout life is a combination of frenetic activity one day and monotony the next. A lookout must have the kind of personality that can handle both…..and be self-sufficient throughout. Every day is different.
Sometimes being in a Lookout all day with little exercise can drive a person who likes exercise crazy. Sometimes I find myself pacing around and around the firefinder while listening to the radio. At other times, I practice yoga. The best time for exercise is after evening check-in when technically I am finished with the work day. Although I must carry the radio and cell phone with me, I am free to get out of the tower and take a walk.
It was cooler in the forest and I noticed that the huckleberry bushes were starting to show their fall colors. The wind blew through the trees whispering to me as I walked. The radio did not squawk very much and I heard a few bird calls and saw a chipmunk on a log looking at me with interest. It was good to stretch out and walk. After returning to the clearing around the Lookout, I wandered around looking at a dead tree that had recently fallen over, old stumps that told stories of past decades, piles of slash waiting to be burned. Memories of picking huckleberries in that clearing flooded my mind, but there was not a huckleberry in sight, not even a dried one. In my time at Cyclone this summer, I had not seen any huckleberries along the trail which usually has an abundance. The Cyclone sites that are a part of our huckleberry citizen science project are not doing well either. Two abnormally hot, dry summers in a row have been too much for them to sustain a crop. This does not bode well for grizzly bears that depend on huckleberries for a significant percentage of their diet. I grieve about the radical changes that are happening to our climate. Huckleberries are one indicator. 100 degree days are an indicator. Long fire seasons with many weeks of living in smoke are another. With those thoughts in mind, I returned to the tower to make dinner.
As the temperature cooled and the wind picked up, the Numa Fire was called “contained.” I watched another red sunset in a smoky sky longing for the blue, clear skies that were so characteristic of Montana summers of the past.