As of today, over 133,000 acres of Gila National Forest (GNF) in New Mexico is engulfed in a massive wildfire. The Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire, named after the Whitewater and Baldy Fires joined, has become the largest fire New Mexico has ever seen. With high winds and low humidity, it is also the hardest to contain.
Coincidently, I am reading Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. The author spent eight seasons in a fire tower above the Gila National Forest searching for smoke. A season starts in April and ends the beginning of September. He spots his first plume of smoke while hiking to his assigned tower the last week in April which is the least volatile time of the season.
Connors radios in as he runs to the top of the trail. The smoke is rising from Thief Gulch on the east side of the Black Range. Ironically, he is lucky to have spotted it on his hike. His advantage point in the tower would have had an opposite effect since the smoke generated deep within its hidden alcove. Spotters like Connors name the fire and this becomes the Thief Fire.
Published in 2011, this book won the National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature. Reading it you can see why the judges gave this non-fiction a literary award. Connors channels the many writers such as Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and “A River Runs through It” author Norman Maclean. All worked as fire tower employees in GNF or other western parks in America before becoming famous writers.
What a life! Spending five months in a remote forest tower with nothing but your thoughts had to be a writer’s paradise, but not for Connors. He experienced writer’s block from the beginning. Instead, he started to hand write his experiences in the form of letters to his editor. He then mailed them and waited for his editor to either say it was interesting or not worthy of ink.
Do you think you could live in a remote area scanning the horizon for smoke on a daily basis? Connors answers this or variations of the solitary theme in every chapter. It is a major concern as lookers leave spouses and day jobs five months out of the year to attend the forest. Books, hikers, his wife Martha, and the presence of his precocious dog, Alice, are but a handful of techniques used to stave off loneliness for these “freaks of the peaks.”
Both editor and writer did an outstanding job as Fire Season has me craving a tower to man.