February 2009

Fire on the Horizon

by Cindy Bellinger

"Fire Fever
As I sit on my mountaintop,
And watch the lightning zing and pop
Down on a canyon or hill
The clouds looking like an anvil
I’m looking here, there, everywhere.
Electricity’s in the air."

Fire on the HorizonThis is more than a poem by Dixie Boyle; the experience is something she’s made a summer career out of for the past 22 years. She is a fire lookout. Spending long weeks alone in a tower overlooking vast tracts of wilderness is something that stirs a deep passion in Boyle. "When I was in college, I needed a summer job. The Forest Service was hiring lookouts so I applied," she says. Her first job was in the Gila National Forest. "I just wanted to see if I liked it."

Now at 53, she still likes it. "I love the isolation and being by myself. I’m a loner by heart and really enjoy solitude," she says from her ranch near Mountainair where she is a member of Central New Mexico Electric Cooperative. She’s married and says her husband is perfectly fine with her long stretches away from home. She’s been on fire watch in Oregon, Wyoming and South Dakota, as well as New Mexico.

During the off-season Boyle worked as a history teacher, and recently retired. She doesn’t make much money as a fire lookout. Her pay is $12.70 an hour. But money isn’t why she does this. "I’ve always had a wanderlust spirit. Being a lookout was a great way to see the West. It’s something a lot of lookouts have. We’re frontier types," she says.

In many parts of the country it’s been a dry winter. This summer could mark a lively year for fire lookouts. There are over 40 active fire lookout towers in New Mexico; at one time, 93.

Even though lookout jobs aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, Boyle says there’s still a need for people to spot fires. One season she reported 62 fires; her total is about 300. "Most of them, probably 98 percent, are caused by lightning strikes. You can sit in a tower and watch the lightning hit the ground and you know you’re going to be reporting fires when the storm passes," she says.

Boyle is currently the director of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and says the long legacy of the fire lookout job began "in the 1870s. The hey-day was in the ‘50s. But we still need fire lookouts."


History of Fire Lookouts

It all started when fires began near Western mining camps. Once a fire started, it quickly leveled settlements of tents and wooden buildings. Fire spotters were posted on hills that overlooked the camps, ringing a bell if smoke was spotted. It’s speculated that the first lookout platform was built near Helena, MT during the gold rush days in 1870. Another overlooked Deadwood, SD around the same time.

Then in 1876, the Southern Pacific Railroad built the first lookout in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains near the Donner Summit. Sparks from the metal wheels and cinders from the smoke stacks often ignited nearby brush.

Initially, fire lookouts were makeshift camps set up as "patrol points" where a designated observer would ride a horse and make observations. The next stage in fire lookout architecture had primitive wooden platforms sometimes with a modest cover but open on all sides to the elements. The first official lookouts used by the Forest Service were probably in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho.

Then in 1905, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot created the National Forest Service and instilled the philosophy of "total exclusion" of fires—for sure a benefit to the logging industry. But that prevailing forest management viewpoint is what’s contributed to many of the fires throughout the West in recent years.

Through the 1920s, primitive lookouts began appearing on top of mountains throughout the United States. Most, however, were built during the Great Depression of the 1930s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an economic relief program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruited unemployed, single men and sent them into the wilderness to control fires. This in turn led to a construction boom of fire lookouts that were built on peaks about 10 to 20 miles apart.

Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC built 3,400 lookout towers. They also laid 89,000 miles of phone lines to connect the towers. Sources say at one time there were between 7,000 to 8,000 lookouts nationwide. Today there are about 550.

World War II changed the face of the fire lookout program. Many were used for spotting enemy planes, and as the war escalated and men called to service, women became spotters in the lookout towers. One woman’s account of spotting fires in 1943, is the book Tatoosh by Martha Hardy. It chronicles a summer as a lookout near Mt. Rainier in Washington. A high school math teacher, Hardy wrote she took the job because, "I wanted to see if I could stand my own company."

During the 1960s and 1970s, most lookout towers were phased out and with them thousands of seasonal jobs. "What really contributed to the demise of the lookout towers," says Boyle, "is the use of aircraft to spot fires, and now many of the towers have electricity and that lets the lookouts communicate better." The more powerful remote radios have replaced the necessity of building towers closer together for better reception while relaying information about smoke. But a "let-burn" policy in many wilderness areas that lets fires run their natural course, has also contributed to the change in the lookout program.


Famous Fire Lookouts

Liking to write and choosing seasonal work as a fire lookout, puts Boyle in good company. Being alone and enjoying the isolation comes close to being a job prerequisite, and a few famous writers got their start as fire lookouts. Jack Kerouac, an author during the Beat Generation (writers who came to prominence in the 1950s) spent 63 days during the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington. That stint resulted in The Dharma Bums, published in 1958.

The novelist Edward Abbey was a lookout in the 1950s at Arches National Monument in Moab, UT. The journals he kept became the basis for one of his most famous works, Desert Solitaire, published in 1968. He wrote, "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same."

Another distinguished lookout is Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist. As an undergraduate at Oregon State in the summer of 1968, he took a job as a fire lookout and while on duty noticed two owls flying together. He’d never seen them before and became curious.

He identified them as the Mexican Spotted Owl and his subsequent research not only cemented a long career, but changed the face of the logging industry. He discovered a symbiotic relationship between spotted owls and stands of old-growth Douglas-fir. His findings helped pass the Endangered Species Act in 1973; they also became the bane of lumber jacks. Protecting forests for the spotted owl has stopped many timber-cutting programs mostly in the Northwest, and shut down many towns dependent on logging.

In listing notable fire lookouts it’s important to include Hallie Morse Daggett, the first U.S. Forest Service female lookout. In 1913, she was assigned to a primitive cabin at the top of Klamath Peak in the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and worked seasonally for 15 years. She earned a salary of $840 a year.

Scouring the Internet reveals many sites devoted to female fire lookouts. Nancy Hood spent 50 consecutive summers on a mountaintop in California’s Klamath National Forest. Ramona Merwin raised her family in a lookout on Vetter Mountain in Southern California. Helen Dow "manned" the Devil’s Head Lookout at Pike National Forest in Colorado in 1918.

Boyle doesn’t usually divide the people who become lookouts into gender; they’re just doing their job. But if pressed, she says it’s about half men and half women who staff the lookouts for the Cibola, Gila and Lincoln National Forests. One story she tells in her book is about Lucy Whiteside, who staffed Mt. Sedgwick in the Zuni Mountains on the Cibola National Forest in 1919.

Whiteside’s husband was the fire lookout, before he was murdered by cattle rustlers. She took over his duties as lookout and firefighter, and continued operating their ranch at the base of the mountain. Whiteside turned into one of those small-town characters everyone knew and loved, and during her latter years she ran a popular café in Grants.


Lookouts in New Mexico

Boyle says she and others interested in lookout history are presently researching five possible sites that might have been used for lookouts. If these prove positive, the number of lookouts that dotted the high mountains of New Mexico will be close to a hundred. There are 20 forest districts in the state, and all staff at least one lookout. But throughout New Mexico only 41 lookouts are staffed, and this includes the fire lookouts used on the Jicarilla, Mescalero and Navajo Reservations. Some lookouts are staffed only during severe fire years such as Deadman (Santa Fe), Five Mile (Mescalero Reservation), La Mosca (Mt. Taylor District/Grants) and Weed Lookout on the Lincoln National Forest.

The lookout tower near El Morro National Monument between Grants and Zuni was last staffed in the 1950s. It’s in typical shape for an abandoned lookout. The windows are gone, the stairs shaky. Boyle says there’s talk of restoring it just as there is for several other of the once active towers. A few are even registered with the Historic Preservation Foundation. There is a trend, like with out-of-use lighthouses along our nation’s coasts, to turn lookouts into vacation rentals. None so far have reached that stage in New Mexico.

Once considered a proud symbol of our nation’s conservation heritage, fire lookouts are a fading legacy. But the service they provide is still needed.

There are many applicants for the few seasonal jobs to work in a fire lookout. To start the process of becoming a lookout, you can hire on as a relief. "Everyone needs a break to get food, take a shower and find more books," says Boyle. For more information and to apply for lookout jobs go to www.avuecentral.com.


Dixie’s Outlook

Dixie Boyle writes about her wanderlust spirit in her book, Between Land & Sky, which through diary form, compiles many years of living in towers and looking for that fine thread of smoke among the trees.

May 26, 1982: I have learned to appreciate the fortitude and heartiness of our ancestors while living with all this snow. Suzie [another lookout Boyle was sharing duties with] and I take turns chopping wood and keeping the woodstove going...especially when the wind continues to batter against the cabin. We’ve been melting snow and using it for drinking water. We dug out a path between the lookout and the outhouse ...the wind keeps blowing the snow back into the areas we clean. ...

The entry continues that the chores they do, keep them warm and give them something to do. This report was from her first job. Today, Boyle cherishes the time alone and doesn’t need to find ways to pass the time.

"I love to write and read. Being a lookout is a great way to get lots of reading done," she says. She also studies the animals and watches the birds.


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