FOREST FIRES IN THE WEST [HUNTER GRAY] UPDATED SUBSTANTIALLY AT MANY POINTS INTO SUMMER 2012 -- NEW MATERIAL ON THE LIFE OF A FIRE LOOKOUT.
BEAR MOUNTAIN FIRE
LOOKOUT [Apache National Forest, Arizona]. I spent the
entire Summer of 1960 in solitary, reflective, and very pleasant isolation
'way up there -- many trail miles indeed from the Blue River and the nearest
[rudimentary dirt] road. My small cabin was close to the base of the tower.
I had a wood cooking stove and two white gas Coleman lanterns. The Lookout
itself was equipped with a large, short-wave radio. Hunter Bear
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] RIGHT AFTER BEAR MOUNTAIN [AUGUST 1960]
August 19 2012:
Fire smoke is heavy all over this
region -- posing significant
problems for those with respiratory
July 17, 2012:
A special report by Hunter Bear (July 3 2012) And then, scroll down for our very full Fire Page.
June 29 2012:
FIRE NOTES FROM RIGHT HERE AT POCATELLO, IDAHO FROM HUNTER BEAR TO FRIENDS [JUNE 29 2012]
June 27 2012:
End Times ain't in my personal theology -- but these days it's damn sure trying to get in.
Here is part of one way to look at it: super hot temperatures draw pitch/sap from coniferous trees in quantity and at an accelerated pace -- and that can burn almost like gasoline.
June 12 2012:
At the rate it's been going, this could be about the worst fire season in this country's recorded history. These "explosions" are pure tragedies in the drier Western settings where it can take a few hundred years for yellow pine or cedar or juniper or pinon -- and other trees -- to grow to full maturity. I feel especially and deeply sad personally about the massive destruction in the Gila National Forest/Wilderness Area in southwestern New Mexico. I know parts of that fairly well and, when I was fire lookout/radio man on very remote Bear Mountain in extreme eastern Arizona, the western "edge" of the Gila -- the Mogollon Mountains [Muh-Ghee-Ohn] were literally my next door neighbors to the immediate east and much in my official viewing purview.
Here are two of many comments that have come as a result of my above June 12, 2012 posting. Susan is a Standing Rock Sioux, a noted writer, keeps up very well with environmental matters. Steve is a long time social justice activist with strong environmental commitments -- whose observations parallel mine. [H]
NOTE BY HUNTER BEAR (May 25 2012):
I posted the following two introductory paragraphs on May 11, 2012 -- on a number of e-mail discussion lists and to many individuals. Only a few days later, sadly and not surprisingly, forest and brush fires broke out in various parts of the West. High and consistent winds are involved. Some of the worst fires at this point are in Arizona, in regions I know well. It's going to be a very rough and destructive fire season indeed.
Any late spring, summer, early fall is always challenging as all hell in the West when it comes to forest and brush fires. This fire season promises to be especially tough. Idaho and many other western settings have received relatively little rain or snow this year. Here is our well visited and large webpage on western fire situations -- into the summer of 2011. It also includes a section on the daily life of a now old-time U.S. Forest Service fire lookout. Much of the information is based on my own personal experience and observation as a lookout and firefighter in the Southwestern timbered areas.
FOREST FIRES AND A VERY LONG CONVERSATION [HUNTER BEAR] JUNE 11 2011
"Most of the places we know on the Apache [National Forest] are gone now," said the voice of my old friend, Joe Janes, during a long phone conversation yesterday. "My daughter in Silver City [N.M.] keeps me pretty well up to date on it." Joe, about ten years older than I, a World War II vet and trained in anthropology, is among my very oldest friends, We did a lot of Forest Service work together, starting 'way back -- first on the Coconino National Forest out of Flagstaff and later at the Alpine Ranger District on the Apache. Later, he transferred to the U.S. Park Service but we've always been in touch. He and his wife live now near the western Washington coast in the rain forest. [Our early drinking escapades and related matters are outlined in http://hunterbear.org/reminiscence.htm
JUNE 6 2011: ALPINE, ARIZONA [HUNTER BEAR]
UPDATE NOTE BY HUNTER BEAR: [NOVEMBER 3 2007]
Given the sad events of this fall and our preceding summer, there is a good deal of broad interest in Western forest/brush fire situations. While a few may have seen our large webpage on the general situation, most probably have not. That Link follows. I personally tend to write primarily -- whatever the topic -- from direct personal experience and observation. Much of my life has been spent in Western mountain country and I do know a good deal first-hand about fighting forest fires. While I don't know much at all about the western California situations, I am aware that extremely rapid expansion of the human population into heavily timbered and/or brushy regions -- almost in a crazy-quilt quasi-checkerboard fashion -- is a part of the problem faced there. But there are others, perhaps more unique to that specific region than, say, Northern Arizona or Idaho or Montana or New Mexico. Some years ago, one of my oldest friends -- and, in the old days, a long-time colleague in direct forest fire fighting -- was sent from Northern Arizona into a California situation. He has described it to me many times as the most chaotic experience he ever had fighting fire -- extremely poor and confused inter-agency coordination and a frequent lack of "outdoors" experience by many of the ostensible fire fighters who often came from purely urban backgrounds. [Of course, a few of these recent California situations have, as they've gone along, become "urban fires" as well.] In the mess of some years ago described by my friend -- yet again as recently as a phone conversation a few weeks ago -- that crisis was solved only when another old friend of both of us from Northern Arizona -- a highly experienced fire dispatcher, fire boss, and fire fighter generally was rushed into that California mess as the top operational commander. In fast due course, that took care of things.
Anyway, here is our website page.
Although the following attached piece was written a few years ago, we have had a purely terrible brush and forest fire season in this Intermountain region. [The Southwest has been somewhat spared this time around.] From late spring virtually to the present, Idaho and Utah and Montana and environs have had varying degrees of drought [especially hereabouts] and so many fires [caused by humans and "dry lightning"] that, coupled with various felony crimes, most of our local news has focused on those topics only. We are somewhat safe where we live but a friend of Eldri's, living close to Pocatello, had to evacuate when a fire came within fifty feet of her home -- the inferno was halted at that point.] Now we are getting some rain, accompanied by hard lightning which can hit anywhere fairly "high", often in areas tough to easily reach, and can quickly ignite more fires.
I was sixteen when I fought my first forest fire just west of my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona. A primary attraction of the upper western edge of town was Lowell Observatory which, at that altitude of over 7,000 feet, specialized in scrutiny of Mars. Both it and the whole town were in serious danger. A bit more on my baptism coming up. [The second fire I fought was soon thereafter, in a very remote area far north of town, much larger. It is that one where, after several days and nights of work, the fire became ostensibly -- ostensibly -- "contained" and I was shifted to cooking work ["bull cook"] in the large fire camp. It was there that, as the great fire broke out of its brief confinement, that the events discussed graphically in my later much published short story, "The Destroyers," transpired -- virulent anti-Black hatred in the context of very rapidly approaching Hell.
But back to the first fire. Attracted by the challenge and one dollar an hour, a buddy and I, claiming the old age of 18, signed up together at the Coconino National Forest fire control center on the edge of town -- but were split into different outgoing crews. I rode to the Fire War in the back of a bouncing truck, accompanied by World War Two vets who swapped stories centered on how remiscent all of this was of military combat. Once at our destination, a foreman handed us each a Kordick [large rake/hoe] and a full canteen. "Keep your fire-lines wide and keep the Goddamned thing from spreading," he barked.
That was the sole instructional training we received. [In time, recalling that, I recognized the solidity in the veterans' comment often given young men facing imminent and dangerous challenges in other settings: "You won't learn anything from me that you won't learn there after ten minutes." I found myself working with a friendly young Latvian immigrant, only a little older than I, who was slightly crippled. He gave his name as Erik but knew no English. Later the two of us were joined by Loren, a 20 year old cowboy from the Prescott, Arizona region who was passing through town and felt obliged to lend his efforts. Although some years later, the Forest Service required fighters to wear hard-hat helmets, Loren and I had widebrimmed Stetsons which were useful in shielding us from burning embers and, placed over our faces when needed, helped somewhat on the often choking smoke. Erik had no hat of any kind but Loren and I shared ours with him. We worked an 18 hour shift; then, after four hours of sleep and some food, went back for another. The town and the observatory were saved -- barely.
And my fire career was launched. I still have an old, brown Stetson with the charred evidence of partially burned holes. As I followed my Star, there were guys who were killed and others injured in varying degrees -- usually seriously -- but I was lucky. I did almost burn up a couple of times, however -- once in 1956 on a very large fire in the pine forests well to the south of Winslow, Arizona. There, working steadily along, I was deserted by a panicky fire crew and its foreman and barely made it through the flaming trees to relative safety.
Cowboying and coal mining -- and mining in general -- are all innately and extremely dangerous. Anyone with any savvy at all about brush and forest fire control will put that 'way up high with those. When I started in 1950, at sixteen [ostensibly eighteen], the horror of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest, Montana, hovered over the entire Mountain West. There, thirteen young men died -- essentially close together. Norman Maclean, a fine writer and a great Westerner, wrote a hell of a good book about that colossal tragedy, "Young Men and Fire." My son, John, gave it to me on my birthday, 1993.
Strongly recommended. H.
FOREST FIRES IN THE WEST: SUMMER OF 2002 [HUNTER GRAY JUNE 23, 2002]
Written as Hell rips through the White Mountain country -- bearing down on the small towns I remember well.
I have a few reasonably salient thoughts
on the Western forest fire situation which I'll get to in a moment or
so. I know about some things -- and forest fires are high on that list.
It's personally extremely hard for me to view, even via cushioned television, the massive forest fire destruction now underway in much of the drought-tortured West -- including my native Northern Arizona. I certainly know about forest fires. I wasn't too far at all into my teens when I often began claiming that I was 18 -- and the legal age to fight forest fires. The US Forest Service in those days was casual and informal and, even though various officials knew full well how old I really was [some were the fathers of friends of mine], no sweat whatsoever. I was a big, tough and committed kid and that was enough. In that epoch I fought many forest fires and, eventually, was promoted into very important and isolated mountain-top fire lookout/radio work when I was still 17. And occasionally, in the ensuing years of full adulthood, I fought forest fires as a volunteer at various points. And I served as full-time fire lookout/radio man in the summer of 1960 on one of the most isolated lookouts in the entire West: Bear Mountain, Apache National Forest, on the Arizona/New Mexico border. I'm good with an axe or a shovel, a Pulaski [axe/hoe], a McLeod or Kordick [hoe/rake] -- or a crosscut or a chain-saw. I know back-fire burning. And I know dynamite. It's been awhile -- but, living where we do right now in Southeastern Idaho -- we're always alert this time of year.
But what's going on in Northeast Central Arizona -- around Heber and Lakeside and Show Low and other little towns, in the White Mountain country -- is the worst by far and away that any living person has seen in that region. There has never been anything like this: at this point [Sunday afternoon], over 300,000 acres have burned, around 30,000 people have been forced from their homes in a half-dozen towns, and there's no simply no end in sight. Not too many years ago, my parents and a brother owned land in the Lakeside region and I had nieces and nephews near Show Low. I certainly have friends right there, right now.
If there's any rainy season in the future of this hideous Southwestern drought, it's still several weeks off -- and it'll be preceded by much "dry lightning" which always plays fire hell in the woods during these periods.
It takes literally hundreds of years for cedars and junipers and pinon pines and the much bigger Ponderosa [Yellow] pines to grow to maturity in the always dry Southwest. Takes only a minute to destroy one -- leaving simply a burned out, black shaft.
I've heard, since I was a child, the on-target talk about "too damn many people" coming into the West. That's true -- but inevitable. And some [certainly not all for sure] big city types -- whatever the longevity of their Western residence -- are careless, ignorant people. And it's also true, to an extent, that the forests long ago became over-protected from every fire to the point that fires often become intense and high-reaching and super-destructive in the resultant, comparatively heavy underbrush. And this means that incredibly fast-moving tree-top to tree-top crown fires are common -- in contrast to the very, very old days when natural and simple and minimal ground fires simply cleaned and cleared on a regular basis without destroying any trees.
Arm-chair strategizing in a horrific situation like this is usually very questionable. But I do have these few nagging thoughts based on a good deal of fire fighting experience.
In the old days -- back when I was always ostensibly 18 -- we were all highly skilled in the basic use of fire tools. With the exception of an occasional power-wagon water-tank vehicle when there was at least a trace of a road, we worked only with those tools. We traveled in rough and often very remote country -- quick acting ground troops who generally moved on heavily booted feet but sometimes by horse or mule, often ate military combat rations, drank from simple canteens. If there were field radios, they were walkie-talkies. There were bulldozers in some places -- but the only aircraft involved were very small planes for spotting and directing purposes. [Smoke jumpers, much found even back then in Montana and Idaho and the drier side of the Pacific Northwest generally, were not utilized in our Southwest.]
Eventually, right around the end of the '50s, heavy tanker planes carrying borate solution and related things -- and, in the Southwest, based at Silver City, N.M. -- came into vogue. And sometimes dumping chemicals appeared to replace the primary, quick initial reliance on fast-moving "professional" ground crews.
At around this time, the Forest Service became much more internally formalized. An initial indication was the insistence on a recruit really being 18. Then, it became mandatory that one could no longer wear his Stetson or whatever other wide-brimmed Western hat on a fire -- but had to wear a fairly heavy safety helmet. But there were far heavier problems developing than those:
Even though the USFS District Rangers always had college degrees in forestry, most Forest Service personnel had had no college at all -- and many still haven't. The District Rangers [and the just out of forestry college Assistant District Rangers], recognizing the value of hard-fought experience, didn't throw their weight around. They knew how to listen.
In an old-time fire situation, it wasn't unusual for the Fire Boss to be a veteran who'd traveled thousands of miles of fire-lines but who'd never set foot inside a college of any kind. One of the great Fire Legends in the Southwest was a Flagstaff man who had come West on Highway 66 as a kid during the Depression, worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps -- and eventually became Fire Dispatcher for the Coconino National Forest. From him I learned much indeed -- and so did the very great many others who were willing to listen.
But by the end of the '50s, the newly emerging Assistant District Rangers in an increasingly formalized USFS -- who eventually became District Rangers -- began to throw their weight around long before they knew where it ought to be aimed and landing. They often missed, there were heavy mess-ups, and much ill-will between these shave-tails and the veterans. But, given the new ethos of form and structure, the former prevailed.
And, even as that continued and became more and more institutionalized, there was another related trend: chain-of-command bureaucratization. In the Old Days, people weren't afraid to make quick, strategic decisions. A Fire Boss didn't feel obliged to clear a basic decision -- e.g., wide-spread back-firing -- with officials based some distance away. Sector bosses and crew bosses often made quick decisions on their own -- as did basic front-line troopers on the fire line itself. There was solidarity and cohesion -- but not at the expense of individual intuition and logic.
Do any of these negative strains -- those that emerged forty or so years ago and are now securely embedded in USFS agency culture -- at all responsible for the colossal and truly Hellish Arizona catastrophe that's sweeping across the White Mountains and environs?
All I can say is this: It's been a prolonged period of far-flung drought in that entire region -- maybe even unprecedented. But there've been droughts before that have been pretty bad.
And the West has had too many people in it for a long time.
And the underbrush hasn't been piling up at any faster a rate than it has since the beginning of the 20th Century.
And there were bad fires -- and big bad ones -- in My Time. But not fires on the scope of these tremendous monsters. The Woods have not changed. Nor has the nature of Fire.
But some things obviously have.
Yours, Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR]
ROUGH NOTES ON LOOKOUT LIFE --- FOR A YOUNGER FAMILY MEMBER [HUNTER BEAR FEBRUARY 15 2009]
I have always been
what's called a "loner" -- tend to hunt and hike by
myself, spent days in the wilds with no one around. So I was a natural for
the isolated work of a fire lookout. While some lookout arrangements, I
should add, are constructed so one can live in them, most have simply a
cabin at the base of the tower -- like Bear Mountain and virtually all the
others. I usually had pretty simple food: tins of beef, cans of peaches,
lots of coffee, cans of stew etc. Some bread -- but it doesn't keep. I
could make biscuits with flour. At Bear Mtn, everything had to be packed up
by mules; at Woody, there was a very rough road. All fire lookouts have a
well for drinking and washing water, protected by a moveable wooden cover
[to keep rodents, such as chipmunks, from falling in.] One or twice a day
I'd lower a bucket. Outside-type latrines. A garbage pit-- and, on Bear
Mtn, a bear used to visit it at night.
One of the very first things a lookout has to do is familiarize himself [or
herself in some cases] with the vast sweep of terrain: get to know the lay
of the land, the place names of other mountains and ridges, etc. Very soon,
one become extremely familiar with the geography -- to the point that
anything unusual, such as a fire ["smoke"] jumps out. You also have to
learn the established and safe smoke situations. On
Elden I knew the far-off route of a smoky logging train; on Bear Mountain,
the copper smelter far, far to the south. Binoculars are a must -- the
Forest Service provided Bushnell 10X. On Elden, I had a large shortwave
radio and on Woody a walkie-talkie. Bear Mountain had a very complex radio
system which I had no problem operating. Code numbers [10-4 etc] are used
in conversation. Woody had a kind of phone system -- No 9 wire strung via
pine trees and an old telephone. Elden at that time had no phone. Bear
Mountain had a rudimentary phone system that started at Alpine via No 9 wire
on pines and went many many miles south to the top of Bear Mountain. In
between were a few ranchers. The phone was a ring-up antique and the whole
phone "system" was very unreliable. I did the radio consistently.
You also got to know some of the other lookouts. I always had radio contact
with several in my vast region -- including, when I was on Bear Mtn, two on
the Apache reservations 'way to the west.
I'd get up well before dawn in the morning and would go up to the tower to
see if anything had happened during the night. Then, via a wood stove, I'd
boil coffee, maybe fry some food or eat it cold from a can -- and then go up
again for the day, coming down for very short moments occasionally.
I had a few books on Bear Mtn, a couple of old friends type Frank Dobie
books that actually focused on the general Bear Mtn region. But I read only
sporadically and for very short periods because you had to keep watching
constantly. The fire season fell into two time frames: the first, when
there had been no rain, saw the danger as human carelessness. The second,
weeks later, saw first "dry lightning" [no rain], then lightning and some
rain, and then lightning and lots of rain. [I always took "a reading" on as
many lightning strikes as I could and then checked that setting out
regularly -- since, sooner [when dry] or later [when wet] fires could
emerge. Sometimes, after a lightning storm, I'd go up in the tower at
night. If lightning came when I was in my tower, I'd close off the phone
switch and sit on a stool with rubber encasements on the legs. Occasionally,
lightning would hit the towers but the metal is heavy.
When I spotted a smoke, I would make a quick effort to determine if it was
simply dust or, after a rain, fog drifting out of a canyon. But it's always
better to play safe. So, in some cases, I'd report a possible smoke --
along with my reading and a good idea of the geographical location.. On all
of these, definites and possibles, the fire dispatcher would attempt to get
other readings from other lookouts to get a "string cross" specific location
on the map.
White smoke meant a ground fire; black smoke meant that the fire was burning
trees and had climbed into the pine tops. Crews would be sent in as quickly
as possible -- sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback or mules. Our fire
region did not use smokejumpers -- but, at the end of my Bear Mtn stint,
there was some dumping of borate solution on fires [planes would come from
Silver City, NM]. But that never replaces the human fire control crews.
We used the old, mostly metallic "fire-finder" -- metal circle with numbered
edges and moveable cross-hair sighting setup to pin fires [the old Osborne.] It lay on a flat table.
[Hereabouts in our part of Idaho -- where there's much Bureau of Land Management
COMMENT [MARCH 23 2009]:
GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi'kmaq /St. Francis
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
I have always lived and worked in the Borderlands.
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