2016 Days 7 & 8 as a volunteer lookout

By | August 9, 2016

Day 7 was a real fire day.  Throughout the morning, the radio crackled with information and the drone of fire aircraft could be heard in the distance.

Thunderstorm south of lookoutI awoke this morning at 0500 when Cooney Lookout called Kalispell Dispatch to report a fire that he had discovered during the night.  This did not surprise me because of all of the lightning activity south of me the night before.  Later, Cooney reported another fire.  These two fires became know as Moore Lake Fire and Piper Fire and resources were sent to the scene.  Later, a helicopter who reconnoitered those fires reported a third fire called the Lower Cedar Creek Fire.   

At 0800, Spotted Bear Lookout reported smoke on a ridge in the area of Cannon Creek and Gorge Creek which was ultimately named the Gorge Fire.  Because we have a new triangulation map at Baptiste Lookout, I was able to use a string to follow Spotted Bear’s azimuth (202 degrees 7 minutes) to the location of the smoke.  This new map is a great addition to the arsenal of tools that we have at the lookout.  I used the map to run a string from my lookout to the smoke location.  I was delighted to see that it was very close to the position that I had put the Osborne Firefinder in last night to mark the location of the first lightning down strike that I observed.  I used binoculars to look for the smoke in that location, I have not been able to see it from this distance.

Numa Lookout had been involved with reporting a fire in the Park the previous evening which became known as the Quartz Fire.  It was declared out in the afternoon.

My day was spent listening to the radio for information about the various fires and finding them on the maps that were strewn across my bed.  With Lat/Long and Township/Range/Section numbers ringing in my ears, I increased my skills by pinpointing the hot spots on the maps.

Listening to the radio, I found it extraordinary how well everyone works together to report, observe, and manage fires.  From lookouts to dispatchers to helicopter pilots to firefighters, everybody does their part to create a beautifully choreographed dance.  I am proud to have a small part in the Dance of Fire.

Thunderstorm activity was predicted to increase throughout the day.  I heard the first thunder in mid-afternoon and saw a storm south of my lookout.  Smoke was reported on Kah Mountain where I saw lightning the night before, but the Lat-Long placed it on the southern aspect where I could not see it.

Trail to Silver Basin

We received information that a major storm cell would arrive in the evening from Missoula bringing 50 mph winds with lightning.  Although the sky was turning dark, the storm was still several hours away so I decided to take my usual walk after the evening check-in.  The winds were calm and the lighting on Baptiste Peak and surrounding rock was perfect for picture-taking. However, before I reached the creek, the winds picked up and the sky became darker so I turned around without filling my water jug.  I arrived back at the lookout in a furious wind that had scattered my maps inside the lookout.  After straightening the maps, I worked on dinner as I watched the build-up of storm cells and listened to the wind howl around the lookout.  By the time I finished eating dinner, large storms had passed to the north and the south of my lookout leaving me in sunshine.  During other years at Baptiste, I had noticed a similar weather pattern.

The North Fork was hit by the northern storm with a downpour of rain and much lightning.  Cyclone Lookout reported smoke on Winona Ridge and Adair Ridge caused by lightning.  Kalispell Dispatch announced that it would stay on duty all night because of weather.

The play of clouds and sunlight

Around sunset, the wind began again.  It howled and rocked the lookout and seeped into the cracks around doors and windows.  I crawled into bed to be warm, but stayed propped up to watch and listen as a violent thunderstorm moved in from the south.  A sliver of moon was visible in the western sky over the Swan Range as I watched in anticipation as the storm approached.  Jagged forks of lightning split through the sky and I was feeling an edge of fear knowing that I would soon be in the middle of it.  However, the storm did what many storms from the south tend to do……it moved off to the east behind Baptiste Peak.  It is almost as though Baptiste Peak protects Baptiste Lookout.

Angry clouds but no rain

When I realized that the storm would pass behind Baptiste Peak, I cuddled down into the warm bed and watched another lightning show to the west of the Swan Range which moved north.  Still encircled by clouds and believing the fire weather report that predicted thunderstorms throughout the night and the following day, I fell asleep expecting to be awaken by radio traffic throughout the night.

I awoke at 0615 when Engine 82 reported to Kalispell Dispatch that they were returning to the Moore Lake Fire.  I looked at the clear morning sky astonished.  Where had all the thunderstorms gone?  It was as though they had been swept from the sky leaving nothing behind.  I checked my rain gauge and found not a drop of precipitation.  With storms covering the whole region last night, I got nothing.  As a fire lookout, I am always amazed by weather.  With all of the knowledge that we have as humans, we cannot really predict accurately what is going to happen in a specific place…..even when it seems immanent.  Weather has its own destiny and we are not in charge of it.

The thunderstorms last night did not miss the North Fork.  Cyclone Lookout called in another smoke report at 0806 which was located below the Lookout (azimuth: 98 degrees 50 minutes).  Because Cyclone was on the edge of the storm, she could see the lightning strikes and resulting fire starts; whereas, Numa Lookout was in the clouds and rain and couldn’t see where the lightning was striking.  These varying weather conditions are one reason why it is good to have several lookouts in any given area.

Breakfast burrito

My “Breeze Box” has kept my food cold enough for the eight days that I have been on the lookout.  In an attempt to use up my vegetables before they spoil, I made scrambled eggs for breakfast cooked with peppers, onions, mushrooms, sweet potato, and cheese with avocado slices on top all wrapped up like a burrito.  I thought about my good friends who had served as “mules” to help me carry fresh, healthy food the six miles to the lookout a week ago.

The clear skies didn’t last long.  Soon, high level stratus clouds were covering the entire sky.  The morning Fire Weather Report predicted thunderstorms with hail, gusty winds, and lightning.  Chance of rain 70%.  Lookouts who were in the heart of the storms last evening were intently watching for smoke where their down strikes had hit.

Osborne Firefinder & Maps

In preparation for the coming storm, I ran scenarios.  Pointing to a spot on the landscape, I pretended there was a fire there.  I ran an azimuth, worked up a legal description, and filled out a pretend smoke report.  Then, I pretended to read it to Kalispell Dispatch.  My hope was that when faced with a real situation, I would know the steps to take without referring to the cheat sheet and wasting valuable time.

Baptiste Lookout surrounded by storms

By 1500, thunderstorms were beginning to move in.  North of Baptiste, one storm cell quickly crossed the Swan Range dropping a grey sheet of rain upon the reservoir around Clayton Island and Elk Island and made its way up the surrounding hillsides and over Elk Mountain and Mount Adams moving east.  Only a handful of drops hit my lookout.  Thunder and lightning accompanied the storm after it cleared the peaks and moved on to engulf Mount St. Nicholas. Looking at the radar on my iPhone, I could see what looked like a wall of storm passing right over my lookout.  Actually, it blew past me to the north and south (once again).  It probably hit Scalplock Lookout with great force.  Some lookouts get all the luck!

I was thrilled to see a Western Tanager land on the railing of the catwalk outside my window.  This lovely, multi-colored bird sat long enough for me to get a good look, but not long enough for a picture.

Spring in Silver Basin

Because the storm cell had passed and the sun was shining brightly, I took my evening walk into Silver Basin after evening check-in.  The Basin was lovely with numerous pollinators busy with the wildflowers and ignoring me as I passed.  I walked further than usual enjoying the creeks and the sounds of running water and busy insects.

Pollinators on wildflowers

At one point, the sun disappeared and I noticed the dark clouds building overhead.  I practically ran up the switchbacks to return to the lookout in case a thunderstorm was moving through.  When I arrived, the landscape was grey and the sky was filled with purple clouds in all directions.  However, a look at the radar showed that once again the line of thunderstorms had split–some moving to the north and some to the south.  I was beginning to think that Baptiste Lookout was some kind of modern-day Moses parting the storms.

Firefighter Lookout to the north was in the middle of a storm and the Emery Fire had been spotted on Emery Bay below the lookout.  However, Baptiste stood aloof from the storms around it.  This continued throughout the evening.  I received word from Numa Lookout that the North Fork was getting drenched and I was pleased to know that my garden was getting watered.

Although I was disappointed to have missed the storms, the clouds and sunlight played games with each other creating breath-taking scenes and I felt grateful to have another day at Baptiste Lookout.

Storm hitting Baptiste Peak

Finally, a storm hits Baptiste

Miraculously at sunset, the rain began to beat against the north-facing windows.  Baptiste Lookout finally got a taste of the storms that had been swirling around us for two days.  The final reward was the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen from Baptiste Lookout.

Best sunset yet!

One thought on “2016 Days 7 & 8 as a volunteer lookout

  1. Robert Goodwin

    Your stories bring back old memories of attacking forest fires in N. California as a teenager.

    Have fun, Bob


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