Ranger Diary: Lookout Duty


August 11, 2013
Topic of the Day: Lightning

It came from clouds like this, flickering down from the dark bottoms to touch the ground. Long dark veils of rain and hail swept along behind, and the sky growled all day. Storm cells churned up from the south until late afternoon. I bailed off my perch twice, seeking lower ground. Better safe than zapped.


August 12, 2013
Topic of the Day: Smoke

I returned to Quartz Mountain, marveling at the change in the weather. It was a much nicer day. Scanned with binoculars. Watched smoke from the Conrad Lake fire smear the distant horizon. Set up my camp chair, faced south, read a book for awhile and got drowsy. Looked up to find a pale shape where there hadn’t been anything a minute ago. I woke up. The map was already pinned to the ground with rocks and oriented to the landscape. North side of Bethel Ridge, azimuth 170 degrees, east of the radio tower. Township 14, Range 14, section 2. Approximately. I peered through the haze, willing the binoculars to give me clearer vision. Called it in. A few minutes later another one popped up, this time to the west of the tower in section 5. Called it in. Pretty soon the observer plane showed up and called in the latitude and longitude, gave a fire behavior report. An engine was dispatched. I watched as the first smoke grew. Because I was on the boundary between two ranger districts, I monitored two radios. Everybody was chasing smokes. After awhile the radio traffic becomes irritating. To distract myself, I picked up trash. The variety is delightful–I rarely find shattered beer bottles, cigarette butts, or pistol shells in the wilderness.

Made a small watercolor sketch while mosquitoes gnawed on my hands. Kept looking up. As the sun headed west over Mt. Rainier, the shadows lengthened and I knew no more smokes would appear today. Ravens played on the wind, out of sight but not out of hearing.

Two smokes in one day and one watercolor–not bad.


Light leaked over the edge of the world this morning, and I cracked my eyelids to look out the windows that surrounded me. Smoke filled the mountain valleys but the sky above was clear. I put my legs on the floor and waddled in my sleeping bag like a penguin. As coffee water heated, I watched Mt. Rainier flush pink with the dawn. Shadows were deep, and I could see the day brightening by the second. The sun tumbled up over the horizon, and I exclaimed aloud. Oh joyous golden orb, bringing warmth! It was 30 degrees in the lookout.

And quiet. Yesterday the wind blustered and gusted all day, flapping the shutters and slamming the tower. What a difference to have just a murmur of air moving over the mountaintop.

A strong unpredicted thunderstorm swept over the Cascades Saturday night. An estimated 3000 lightning strikes came down, starting at least one hundred fires on the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest. It’s been a long fire season around the west. It’s still dry here since the usual Labor Day rainstorm didn’t materialize. So there’s smoke, unusual for this time of year.

At Red Top Lookout, my job was to sort out the smokes. Some had already been called in and some had people working on them. Some were new. I used the Osborne fire finder, maps, and binoculars. By the end of my shift today, I had a list of fifteen fires to monitor–a personal record. The radio traffic was constant. As an old dispatcher I keep at least one ear tuned to it all the time. Which voices go with which fire. Multiple conversations, fragments and static.

The lookout tower suits me. It’s visual, with long views. The landscape is laid out all around. In this case, it’s an intimately familiar landscape that I have walked and driven for over twenty years. The lookout is also solitary, a place of simple self-sufficiency. A sixteen square foot glass room on stilts. It’s deluxe compared to a nylon tent–you can stand up! And although I am physically alone, voices join me to my firefighting kin. At times the radio is irritating, at other times warmly connecting. Conversations are concise and business-like, but tone and a few words can express a lot. We are all in this together.

So many of my work days are spent putting one foot in front of the other. Looking out means I get to stay in one place long enough to watch the light change as the day goes by. A new smoke blooms up out of the forest, migrating hawks pass the lookout on a swirl of wind. A moment of complete silence. To hold still is a gift, a gap before the next snarl of complexity knots up and unwinds.

Life is like this: gaps and snarls, silence and static, solitude and togetherness, combustion and aftermath—fire and someday, rain.