I recently read author Philip Connor‘s latest published essay, “Smoke”, and as usual, it’s a great read. Connors is currently in his 11th season as a fire lookout, stationed in a Civilian Conservation Corps-era fire tower in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest near Kingston, New Mexico. Suffice it to say, he has a lifestyle and job I’ve always dreamed of; getting paid to be far and away and observe the surrounding country in a very remote area. If ever a job demanded one intimately know the surrounding land, then that of a fire lookout certainly requires such close familiarity. And he gets to write, too.
His first major publication was Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (2011) and it is a quiet, yet strong book. With echoes of Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It), Edward Abbey (Black Sun), and Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums) wisping throughout the sentences, Connors begins and ends his book during the fire season of 2009. As he details his time in the fire tower and short trips to town on his days off, he also inserts flashbacks from his boyhood days in the Midwest to his stint as a copy editor for the Wall Street Journal (a post he left after 9/11), creating parallels at various points along the progression of his strong narrative, which marches steadily like the slow burn of a late-season fire. I highly recommend his book and look forward to his next one.
On a related note, the Gila National Forest is considered one of the healthiest forest ecosystems in the Desert Southwest due to the use of prescribed burning and allowing naturally-ignited wildfires to burn (within certain parameters) since the 1970s. The idea is, instead of full fire suppression – which has proved a myopic and failed policy over the last 100 years – some wildfires are allowed to burn on their own and they eventually burn themselves out, due to changes in fuel and weather conditions; a common end of all wildfires.
The Gila NF is also the land that later inspired Aldo Leopold to write one of his famous essays, “Thinking Like a Mountain”, in which he states, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” – the same can be said of wildfire. The public is still too fearful of fire, a thought process born of European influence that has solidified into an anti-fire culture, only to be bolstered by the negative effects of the Smokey Bear legacy. Yet slowly but surely, through the writings of authors like Connors and Leopold, from the results in the field following prescribed burning and manged wildfires, as well as consistently sound educational resources from places like Southwest Fire Science Consortium, the public is starting to open their minds and see that fire belongs in the fire-starved wild lands just as much as wolves and mountains.
After all, fire was here first.
Fire lookouts are, as human progress demands, being used less and less. Click here for an article about their decline.
Fire-dependent ecosystems cover more than half (53%) of the earth’s land surface.