Monday, September 5, 2011


I like fire lookouts. From every last one, there’s always a great view.
-- Mr. Brilliant

Duncan Peak - Placer County
THE LIFE OF A FIRE LOOKOUT seems solitary and romantic – almost idyllic. The gentleman serving at the Duncan Peak lookout appreciates the bears that wander by at dusk, the deer that laze in the grasses a few hundred feet from his tower, the marmot that whistles “good morning,” and the ever changing lighting and skyscape. “But,” he adds, “when those thunderstorms roll through and you can count 115 strikes in less than an hour…” I picture a midnight bright as mid-day and don’t hear the rest of his thought.

Although most of these installations now stand dormant, the folks I’ve met who staff the few remaining active towers talk about what they like to read or that screenplay they’re working on. While visitors are welcome, I get the feeling that the peace that comes with solitude is cherished.

What follows is a short list of books that seem to marry the romance and grit of those in service to our environment…

North of Foresthill Road
EGAN, TIMOTHY. THE BIG BURN. Mariner Books, 2009. Egan recounts the shared dreams of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot who struggle with a recalcitrant and corrupt Congress to create an institution to protect and preserve America’s great natural resources. Just as the fledgling forest service takes root, the most massive wildfire in US history sweeps across the Bitterroots bringing with it incidents of heroism and cowardice. It is a recounting of history that, at times, reads like a thriller.

Mosquito Ridge, Placer County
Coming full circle: We are often told of the Native American population’s understanding fire’s role in the ecosystem. (I suspect that the lack of hoses, ladders, Pulaskis, big red trucks and aerial tankers back then may have contributed to this “understanding.”) In contrast, our quest to preserve all forests from fire has contributed to the devastating huge fires we have seen of late. Egan notes how the Forest Service has evolved to sanction fire as a tool for maintaining healthier forests.

Grouse Lakes, Nevada County
MACLEAN, NORMAN. YOUNG MEN AND FIRE. University of Chicago Press, 1992. Maclean writes about the disastrous Mann Gulch fire in which 15 smoke jumpers parachuted into a remote draw only to be almost immediately consumed by flames. Maclean’s book has become a text used by those in many industries and institutions seeking to examine leadership, communication, decision-making and the consequences of doing a shoddy job of any of those. Maclean also wrote A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT.

An interesting connection exists between a 7-year-old Norman Maclean and one Elders Koch, a forester who rose through the ranks of the service only to turn down the opportunity to head up the agency in Washington DC:

“[He] preferred to stay in Montana, with his summers at Sealy Lake next to the family cabin of Norman Maclean, and a few steps away from some of the best fly-fishing waters in the world.” (Egan, page 268.)

The Bitterroots or DC? Good call, Elders. Good call.

ABBEY, EDWARD. THE BLACK SUN. Capra Press, 1971, 1981. The author of THE MONKEYWRENCH GANG, Abbey takes a stab at the baleful romanticism of being perched on a mountaintop. Bittersweet and perhaps a bit sappy at times, the reader does gain insight into the solitary mind of at least one of the fellows who keeps watch over the forest.

Mt Harkness. (c) National Park Service
Another connection: Quite by accident, as a 14-year old, my path crossed Mr. Abbey’s at the Mt. Harkness Lookout above Juniper Lake in Lassen National Park where he stood watch in about 1966. He regaled my brother and me with all manner of tales including one of deer coming to lick where he’d regularly urinated on a rock just: “down slope over there,” [he pointed] so as not to over fill the outhouse. It wasn’t until I read the same story in his memoir CONFESSIONS OF A BARBARIAN (page 203) that I realized I’d met the man whose books I would later devour.

Little Bald Mt., Placer County
STEWART, GEORGE R. FIRE. Random House, 1948. One of dad’s favorites, Stewart, always the teacher, combines the drama of an advancing wildfire with lessons about physical geography, meteorology, (fires create their own weather) and forest biology. Although he claims the locale is fictitious, I could swear I’ve walked the area he talks about. Easily, he could have been writing about Duncan’s Peak in the Foresthill district of the Tahoe. A student of the west, George R. Stewart’s many works can provide a bedrock understanding of the interface between man and nature.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. I just read Egan's book, The Big Burn, twice and really liked it. While I knew some of the facts well, his clear prose just grabbed my attention and held it.
    I like your blog as well and have visited a few of the places you describe. Camping and fishing on Hell Hole Res. is one of my favorite places in Calif.
    I'll keep checking back to see where you've been.