The Big Ugly

Notes from a Fire Lookout

by Jackie Johnson Maughan


Well, it's Wednesday, August 19, which means 38 days since I came up this mountain...address: NE of the SW, Section 33, Township 33 North, Range 8 East, Coolwater Ridge, Selway District, Nez Perce National Forest.

It's been two weeks of hot, dry weather--Red Flag warnings for high winds and dry lightning, Lightning Activity Level 6 on a scale of 6. But Shissler and Gardiner lookouts over on the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness have had all the fire action. All I've had are two smokes and one was a test set by my boss since I'm a rookie.

Dispatch gives the weather every morning at 0900. This is a major event. I turn the radio up loud, pencil poised. The good ones read it nice and slow. Today's factors are not high for lightning or fires: widely scattered thundershowers, winds 4-12, Lightning Activity Level 2-3; a cooling trend predicted.

The day unwinds at its usual pace: little gold birds (finches, warbling vireos?) picking ladybugs off the rain gauge; kestrel on top of flag pole; lunch of pancakes and peanut butter. (I've run out of bread.) I alternate between trying to write and getting up to pace the catwalk and scan for smokes.

My boss was last up here a month ago. She left me with summer squash and lettuce and cantaloupe and a list of things to do: paint the inside of the lookout (including the ceiling), caulk the windows, sand and varnish the firefinder cabinet, fix the railings down at the spring, dig rocks out of the road (fat chance). I have fixed the railings and caulked the windows and begun on the cabinet. I'll have to stop with my writing soon and get to work on painting.

So, what do I do all day? air the sheets, make the bed, heat water to do dishes, clean out the stove and take the ashes down to the privy to keep down the smell, wash the floor with the gray water from doing the dishes, conduct fly-killing forays twice daily which also means cleaning the windows (19 of them) twice daily, watch birds, watch the pikas, put up the flag and take it down, try to figure out animal tracks, split wood, haul water, talk to the visitors who make it up this terrible road. (I've had to leave my own car down at the ranger station because it won't clear the rocks.)

The closest lookouts I can see are Indian Hill and Pilot Knob at 20 miles. The farthest is Sheep Hill at 40 miles. She's perched on top of a bald, twin-peaked mountain. If I didn't know it was a lookout, I'd swear it was a rock outcropping. Can't see Shissler, Gardiner, Salmon Mountain, Chair Point, Carey Dome, or Oregon Butte because of mountains. But I can hear them on the radio.

Storms usually take shape off to the southwest. They form here in the early afternoon as air from Oregon's high desert pushes up against the mountains of western Idaho. One seems to be collecting down there right now, but it doesn't look like much.

An hour passes. Two hours. I can hear faint thunder in the distance. No visitors so far. My cousin and his wife used to work the Huckleberry Mountain lookout up on the Panhandle Forest. He told me that when they saw visitors coming they'd lock up the lookout and go hide in the rocks.

The usual radio traffic: fisheries crew looking for each other, trail contractor looking for partner, lost mules, lost keys, logger seems to be missing his permit, air patrol doing smoke reconnaissance.

1700: the lookouts on the southern part of the forest do their afternoon check-ins an hour later than we do. Sheep Hill comes on with her lilting voice: "Looks like this cell's turning into a big ugly," she says. "The bottom's black and the top's at maybe 35,000." I take the binoculars and look. All I can see is a bunch of gray stuff.

When I go out to jog at 1730, the air feels damp and heavy. Mountain bluebirds rush from tree to tree in small droves. Farther down a rough-legged hawk calls and calls. I try to watch it, but must keep my eyes on this road.

An hour later and I'm back to the lookout. I climb the stairs, cold already. The wind has picked up and dries the sweat and dirt to my skin. I unlock the chain and push up the trapdoor. Up on the catwalk raindrops splat against the wood.

I go inside and sit on the bed and pull off my shoes and socks. The storm is moving now, maybe 15 miles an hour. The gray stuff has collected into a genuine thunderhead. I can make out the anvil shape and the towering column--exactly what I've been worrying about all summer. And behind it come the fire reports: Oregon Butte, Salmon Mountain.

It moves my way, slowly. Fire reports now from Carey Dome and Chair Point. The easterly lookouts aren't getting hit because the storm is tracking north. Maybe it will track right by me and up into the Panhandle.

I go out on the catwalk to see what I can see and notice an odd noise, then realize it's the antennas humming with ambient electricity. I get back inside in a hurry. The absolute worst place to be is on the catwalk. Inside, you're protected by the grounding system. Still, one's instinct when a storm is brewing is not to remain on top of the highest mountain. I have to fight with myself not to hike on down to the trees.

Inside again and the radio's going bonkers: calls for smokejumpers, airtankers, helicopters with buckets, fire engines, and ground crews for perhaps a dozen fires. There's not much to do but listen. I can only piece together what's happening. Often all I hear is one end of the transmission. Can't hear the field crews unless they're in line with my antennas.

It's 2000 now and the storm has moved up the corridor. It's a mean looking beast, coming in at eye-level, flat black bottom sinking fangs of vertical lightning into the earth. It comes in over the Camas Prairie and hovers over Corral Hill. Then boom, boom, boom, it puts down three huge strikes. Then more and more, all in the same place. A half hour later and I hear the engine crew on the radio. They're on scene and have a pretty good brush fire.

Fifteen minutes later. Pilot Knob is really getting hammered. Boom! A huge strike, boom, boom, boom. Then there's a 60 foot pillar of fire just below him where he can't see it. Indian Hill calls me. Switch to Channel 2. Can I see that fire?

I give him my azimuth and he calls in the cross reading.

2100: It's over me now. It's completely black outside and down come the strikes, enormous bursts of light which seem to rip open the sky, the light so bright it hurts my eyes. I've turned the radio off (out of service for lightning) and am now sitting on the bed. At first I hide under the covers, but decide that's stupid. The bed is fairly safe because the frame is made of wood, unlike the old lookouts with their metal cots and springs. During storms, lookouts used to stand on these little wooden stools. I've got one here, about a foot high with little glass cups which screw onto its legs. I use it for a nightstand. God, to think of a night like this perched on that little stool with only glass insulator cups between me and 1.5 million volts of electricity.

Ten, perhaps fifteen, minutes later, a lull in the storm. I find my flashlight, turn on the radio, go to the firefinder, and start working up legal locations of the fires. You're not supposed to get between the firefinder and any of the metal fixtures (wood stove, propane oven, refrigerator) because they're grounded and lightning could arc and you'll get fried. This is hard to do since the firefinder is exactly in the middle of the lookout. I move fast and have to guess where the fires are since it's hard to see through the peephole to the crosshairs in the dark and it's hard to see the map and I can't see the lay of the land at all except when a lightning strike lights it up.

I compare sightings with Indian Hill. Our boss is also on the radio. We're talking back and forth, giving her our azimuths so she can do a transect, estimating the size of the fires. Then the antennas start to hum and the radio starts to crackle or click, click, click with electricity and the storm starts putting down more lightning. I reach to shut the radio off and it shocks me and I dive, literally, for the bed.

Again the sky lights up. And the thunder comes. And my 14 by 14 feet of space shakes and shakes and I wonder if the shutters will come crashing down and send glass flying. Fifteen minutes pass. I've got fires on a 280. Then we're back on the radio. Our boss wants jumpers ordered at first light...there's so many fires forestwide that jumpers and everything else are in short supply.

August 21: Two days later and the weather's turned cold and wet, but not wet enough to put out the fires. We've got three big ones, one directly across the river canyon from me. It lies like a butterfly across the ridge and into two drainages, beautiful to see at night, but I feel bad for the firefighters working in the cold and wet and dark. And the ridge is steep, probably 75 degrees. I'd like to go down on the fireline and help. I'm not really needed much, so jump at the chance to relay when something or other breaks down and base can't hear them.

1922 and there comes a Priority Emergency from Chair Point. "All stations clear channel." This means the entire forest. There is absolute silence. Priority Emergency means life and death. The radio is silent for an entire hour. No explanation. Somebody somewhere's in trouble. Is it my boss's crew? That cute cowgirl redhead, that strong serious fellow, that rock and roller with the gold earring?

2107: Priority Emergency's been lifted, and the person in charge on my fire radios that they're pulling out to safety area due to high winds and flaming canopy. He requests strike team, helicopter with bucket, tanker with retardant, sawyers (two teams), breakfasts, and radio batteries. I don't think the Forest Service could operate without radio batteries.

Five days later and it's warmed up and I hike the 5400 foot, six mile drop down to the river. I can hear helicopters going whop, whop, whop. Then I'm out of the trees and down to the road. I'm amazed at what I see. The fires are under control or mostly out and they're mopping up. O'Hara Flats looks like a military command center. A tent city of 400 people, generators chugging, miles of electrical cord and cable, water trucks, hot shower trucks, food trucks, gear trucks, dozens of blue porta-potties, communications tent, medical tents, mess tents, crew tents, private tents, school buses, vans, jeeps, pickups.

It's not hard to hitch hike a ride to the ranger station to pick up my mail. It's quiet here with the sprinklers going on the big front lawn. I get a Pepsi from the machine and step out back. There in the afternoon sun, packing long, long lengths of firehose is Ruth, my cowgirl friend. The yellow jackets hover about as we talk. It turns out she was on that crew the Priority Emergency was called on. They were almost trapped in a grass fire. I never do get the story straight, but apparently two crews were involved, cut off from one another.

She keeps talking while she works--something about rolling rocks and going into the black.

I take off my daypack, wave away the wasps, and sit down. Rolling rocks?

Rolling rocks, she repeats, a catch in her voice. It was night-time and the canyon was steep and a fire can burn away the undergrowth holding rocks in place. Once they start to roll downhill, it's really scary because you can't see them. You can hear them when they come rumbling down, but you have to guess where they're going to land. Guess wrong and you're pressed duck.

I think about that for a while. It's pretty easy to visualize, especially the part about pressed duck. But what, I ask her, does she mean about going into the black?

She stops with her work while she talks. Going into the black means you go into an area that's already burned.

I have some trouble with this part. I ask her to explain.

The best place to go when a fire looks like it might catch you is an area that's already burned over because there's not as much fuel there.

I understand this well enough but realize that the only way I could figure out exactly what happened with the two crews and all is if she drew a map.

Well, she's almost got one canvas backpack filled with firehose. It's nice the way she lays it down in flat ribbons. I don't ask her any more about going into the black because I don't want her to think I'm slow.

I uncross my legs and recross them, noticing they're pretty dirty. I study a yellow jacket as it lands on my Pepsi can. Already I'm starting to worry about getting organized and back up the mountain. Yes, it really was a big ugly.

From Go Tell it on the Mountain Stackpole Books.