What is patriotism? In my book it's loving your land, literally, and fighting to guard it. You are a patriot.
Jyri [Kokkonen] Helsinki, Finland  8/22/07


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





August 19 2012:

ABC News began this evening with a true forest fire horror report -- with many vivid images.  Prominently featured in the fire-torn West, is a brand new monster in Northern California, now totally out of control; and also prominently featured is the situation in the Central Mountain region of Idaho, where fires abound with one whole town evacuated and another on the brink.  That's to the west of us with a fairly arid stretch of high desert in between.
Here, in our area,  Eastern Idaho, there have been a number of smaller fires which have, in due course, been contained. The Ft Hall reservation (Shoshone/Bannock), close by, has had two.  Our area is still in some shock from the Pocatello area/Mink Creek fire which destroyed 66 homes and a lot of timber.  To say that people here are vigilant is an understatement. Up where we are, well above Pocatello and on the edge with BLM and USFS lands only a stone's toss away, we are very damn vigilant.

Fire smoke is heavy all over this region -- posing significant problems for those with respiratory challenges.

Weather news is encouraging.  The pre-Fall cooling is slowly -- slowly -- underway. (This is the first day in many weeks that Sky Gray (The Kitty) hasn't gone down to our cooler lower level to sleep out the afternoon in a drawer in that restroom.)  It's been about 85 above -- frigid!  The eight day forecast sees almost all temps in the 80s, maybe one at 90 mixed in. But the long range trend is now cooler, and cooler. Seasonal change is trumping the hideous summer but the Creator alone knows what winter will bring.
More to the point, some rain fell today in the Central Mountains and, south of us, in the Bear Lake setting.  More rain, and some in this area, is predicted for late Monday and Tuesday.  Two "cold" fronts are scheduled for the next week/ten days which will also bring some rain.
Hunter Bear
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
and Ohkwari'
Member, National Writers Union AFL-CIO
(much social justice material)

July 17, 2012:

Around eight fires are burning in this eastern Idaho region.  Most have been caused by dry lightning -- and a couple via humans, though not deliberately. Firecrackers, which I don't like, sparked at least one.  The fires range, say, from 100 acres to 15,000 [the latter mostly scrub stuff, wheat grass and sage.]  As far as I know, they're contained.  There's been some rain, more in the higher mountains but we got a moderate amount right here yesterday which will help what passes for our lawn [lately looking somewhat like Death Valley.] 
Josie, our youngest daughter, and her Cameron and the two Babies (Aidan and Finley) spent a couple of days this weekend at Cameron's family home at the small community of McCammon which is about 35-40 minutes from Pocatello, for the annual rodeo -- but midway the rodeo was mostly rained out.  Rain and mud and rodeos don't mix very well.  The Babies were earlier in the rodeo parade.  Ten days or so ago, they had  a brief airplane ride as well.  They like these adventures.
They're a pleasant adventure in their own right.
With rain comes lightning and surveillance planes fly over us frequently.
Not far away at all in the Teton/Jim Bridger National Forest in western Wyoming, an exceptionally bad fire. much of it in big, prime timber, went on for three weeks or so and the scope exceeds 18,000 acres.  It's essentially contained now.
Utah has its own considerable problems.
The LDS church took the lead in providing food and shelter etc for the many victims of the fire here -- the one which burned 66 homes.  Other denominations have joined in and ecumenical and other efforts are now underway to clear out the damage in the burned area.  That'll take a lot of time.  Scattered pets are still being located and placed with their families.
Up in our own area, adjoining public BLM and USFS lands, no problems so far.  I did clear some dead brush away from our setting and our shovels and an axe are handy.
Most people around here certainly believe global warming/climate change is a key factor in these disasters.
I don't look for fire danger in the West to end until snow flies.

A special report by Hunter Bear  (July 3 2012)  And then, scroll down for our very full Fire Page.

A couple of days ago, Sam Friedman asked on Redbadbear discussion how our fire situation was doing and I posted, among other things, the following two messages.  These will serve to inform interested and concerned family and friends -- some of whom have called or written from far away. And they should deepen the fire awareness of others.  While the local fire and its damage are much smaller than, say, that of Colorado Springs, Pocatello is a very small Idaho city and the effects of this fire assault have been catastrophic.  Other fires are going in Idaho and the general situation is super dangerous
Fires of many sizes, some major by any yardsticks, are raging in adjoining states.  The East certainly has its own versions of Hell.  At the time we were conversing via posts, Sam's spouse, temporarily in Ohio, was threatened by swirling tornadoes but they passed her by.  I commented to Sam that there was a time that, "These weather and related gauntlets used to be the exception."
I have now heard a number of "authorities" via national media attribute the scope and intensity of these Western fires to "over-protection" of the timberlands for many decades and the consequent accumulation of brush of various kinds.  I have been hearing about that problem since my first fire at 16 in 1950 in Northern Arizona and, while there is certainly something much to that, it falls, in my opinion, 'way short of fullness.  Brush and lumbering slash do accumulate and very problematically so but much timberland with fire potential is in high snow areas which, over time, return slash and dead brush into the Earth.  And a great many fires travel by "crownfire" -- traveling from tree top to tree top faster than a person can run.
As I've noted in earlier writings, until the beginning of this new century, most forest fires rarely exceeded nine or ten thousand acres, and were usually much, much smaller.  What's happened in the West is that we've now been having extremely prolonged super hot periods, often prolonged drought, and extremely strong and intensive  and very prolonged winds.  This has been the prevailing pattern for the past more than a decade -- with a sharp increase in truly huge mega-fires.
I personally have heard nothing in these mainline media discussions of fires about the contributing role of global warming/climate change -- an increasingly inescapable conclusion.
Anyway, here is our local report:
Post #1)  The one here at Poky -- that took 66 homes plus various other buildings and burned around 1200 acres -- is essentially controlled though there are still some breakouts.   The wind situation has been helpful -- pretty moderate but picking up again.  There are other fires in the general region that are not yet fully controlled -- but they're in far less "inhabited" areas.  But, of course, all fires are tragedies.
People in the burned area had been advised at several points over the years to clear brush from around their homes which were scattered out in timbered [mostly juniper] slopes.  Some did, some didn't.  Didn't make any difference in this situation as the fire, propelled by extremely high and strong winds, swept up the slopes "crowning out" (traveling fast from treetop to treetop).  The hot weather has made everything super dry and pulled much pitch-sap out in the open on all coniferous trees -- yellow pines, spruce, fir, junipers -- and that's created an explosive potential in the gasoline sense.
Lots of heart-breaking stories.  Plenty of relief agencies and churches involved.  But, in the last analysis, a lot of dreams have probably died for good.  Many pets died or are scattered to the four directions -- and the animal groups and agencies are busy.  Lots of livestock killed.
We ourselves have worked out some basic plans -- should something develop up here in our immediate bailiwick.  We've always had exit plans, much of this involving possible earthquakes, but now we've done a little finessing. 
I hope you all in the East are essentially OK.  Looks like another kind of Hell has ripped through your broad region.
Our best to you all!  Solidarity,  Hunter
Post #2)  Our little family decided a couple of days ago that, should fire be heading toward us, we won't be evacuating quickly.  I've lined up some "resistance" tools -- shovel, axe, etc -- in our garage.  This is a rather rugged group of folks up here and I much imagine some neighbors are doing the same.  And there is good road access for fire control vehicles and men and, should fire come here, we'll all join forces.  If we have no alternative but to leave, we have determined what we'll take in addition to ourselves and the pets, including the turtle.  I lined up cat boxes for quick use and the dogs can reside in the Jeep's rear area.  We could probably wind up with daughter Josie and her Cameron and the Babies who all reside 'way down below -- out of any fire danger.
I do feel that, tallying up our geographical factors, probable wind currents, likely neighborhood solidarity, expected fast response from firefighters, etc, we're fairly safe from home-burnings up here..  But we might well have to fight, and we will.
This is, of course, an increasingly dangerous situation all across the Mountain West and, I'm sure, in the some of the West Coast areas.  The number and nature of these fires and the attendant climate factors all bespeak of something 'way beyond the "norm" [awful as that can be.]  I have to see global warming/climate change as a significant factor.  And I also think that National Guardsmen and Federal troops are needed in some of these situations.
Best, Hunter
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
and Ohkwari'
Member, National Writers Union AFL-CIO
(much social justice material)
See the Stormy Adoption of an Indian Child [My Father]:
(Expanded and with more photos in June, 2012.)
For the new, just out (11/2011) and expanded/updated
edition of my "Organizer's Book," JACKSON MISSISSIPPI --
with a new and substantial introduction by me.  We are now at
the 50th Anniversary of the massive Jackson Movement of
And see My Community Organizing Mini-Course -- with much
down to earth how-to material and updated into 2012:

June 29 2012:



There's been a very bad fire close to Pocatello in the Mink Creek/Scout Mountain area.
Sixty-six homes have been lost here in less than 24 hours and the basic fire of more than 1,000 acres, although "contained", could still break out again.  Best news is that the winds, which can be fierce around here, will be minimal for at least the very near future.
 In a few minutes we're having a tiny little family meeting, including our animal companions, to decide how we'll handle things if a fire crisis comes here to us. Even up here on the edge, we have good road access and fire trucks and men can get here fairly fast. We who live around here can certainly do protective things as well.  The homes in this general area should be fairly safe. But it's obvious we can't take anything for granted.
If a fire crisis does come into our setting, it won't come up from down town but will come from other directions. 
Evacuation orders could be complicating.
One thing that's needed now in Western "hot spots" are National Guardsmen and Federal troops.
Hunter Gray

June 27 2012:


End Times ain't in my personal theology -- but these days it's damn sure trying to get in.

I grew up in the Mountain West -- and wherever my migratory trail has taken me, the Real West is always Home in the deepest and highest ways.  It's extremely tough to watch the hideous destruction of timber presently underway in a number of the Western states where, in the always dry climes, it takes literally ages -- a few hundred years in most cases -- for yellow and pinon pines, spruce, fir, cedars, and junipers to grow to maturity.
Well under the legal age of 18, I became involved in fire control for the U.S. Forest Service out of my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona -- direct fire fighting and later fire lookout/radio work -- and did that for several summers beginning in 1950 and continuing in intermittent fashion into 1960.
Some of these horrors of contemporary times are the biggest fires of which I've ever heard.  While the standard explanations -- e.g., slow accumulation of ground brush and lumbering slash over many years of "over protection" -- have some merit, there are now obviously extraordinary climate factors: super-hot temperatures, extremely high and forceful winds -- winds unusually consistent in nature; weeks-early dry lightning (lightning without accompanying rain).

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.

It's very difficult indeed for me to see how anyone, in this fire context, could dispute the significant involvement of some climate change factors.
In situations like this, people are often hired off the streets to fight fire.  Some do it well and some don't.  In the summer of 1956, I was on a very large fire in yellow pine timber, a "burn" of about 9,000 acres as it turned out, in the Sitgreaves National Forest of Northern Arizona.  I was working building fire line with a Pulaski -- axe/hoe combo -- and had a gallon canteen of water for personal drinking.  Most of the 20 guys on my crew were "greenhorns" from the streets of Winslow.  Suddenly as I worked along, with a huge approaching wall of fire coming fast upon us, I looked around and realized my crew mates had all deserted, leaving me totally alone.  Spot fires -- from windblown sparks -- were developing all about me.  I had heavy logging boots, Levi pants and shirt, and my trusty Stetson hat, and, somewhat singed for sure, I barely escaped with my life and my Pulaski and canteen. When I saw some of the deserters on a far back logging road, several accusatory terms came to mind, but I settled on calling them all "jelly beans" -- an especially vile term in rural Arizona.  Most of them left the fire but I continued with another crew that was rushed in pronto -- and eventually we all stopped the inferno.
Anyway, just some inescapable thoughts. Fires are starting here in Idaho and, 'way up where we live right adjacent to Bureau of Land Management and Caribou National Forest lands, we're certainly on high alert.  Our firefighting webpage is   For my award winning short story, The Destroyers, focusing on virulent racial prejudice in the context of a very large Northern Arizona forest fire, first published in 1960 and reprinted several times since in this country and abroad:  The story is based on my second forest fire in the summer of 1950.  I was on its fire lines and then, when a bull cook was needed in camp, I was shifted into that role where the story events occurred.
Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]


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.

The old weather rules are obviously gone at this point.  Here in Idaho we've had a warm and dry winter, little moisture this spring,  recent days which are intermittently cold with a little snow -- and then abruptly very hot.  High, strong winds are frequent.  With local variations, this bizarre and unpredictable flukiness is obviously a national pattern.
In normal fire season times in the Mountain West, the dry mid-May to early July period involves man-made fires, usually via carelessness.  These almost always are in settings with some road access which obviously facilitates relatively fast action by fire control forces.  Again, in normal times, as July proceeds, there's the very significant danger of dry lightning -- sans rain -- which can strike in very remote areas that take some time to reach. Given that, a fire can become very widespread. [The air dumping of fire control fluids -- e.g., borate solutions -- is helpful but no panacea.]  Effective fire control still requires adequate numbers of ground troops and associated equipment as primary.  Later in July,  lightning and rain normally come together and fires develop and move much more slowly.  Rain often continues into August and then there can be brief dry periods in the early fall where hunting season can pose some fire dangers.
In this current situation, it's wild weather roulette -- but with virtually every negative force magnified tremendously.  In the West, much dry lightning in the context of extreme dryness and exceptionally high winds is already striking out all over -- and there's no rain at all on the horizon.
And that's pure Hell.  You don't have to read the Bible these days to get a sense of that.
Hunter Bear

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]

Absolutely horrific!  I've heard reports from firemen who specialize in forest fires that in this new century they're breaking all records for the acreage involved, and the duration of the fires.  This is all part of climate change, and creates a vicious circle (what with the loss of more trees, etc...).  I don't think it's the end of times, but definitely the "end of doing business as usual" times.  We must wake up!

Anyhow, thank you for keeping me in your news loop -- I always appreciate the scope of your perspective.

Love to the family --

Susan (Susan M. Power)
You sure hit it right on the head, Hunter Bear--Same stuff here--no rain, all heat records being broken, and the wildfires lurk--remember Bastrop last year? (One of the few people killed in that fire was a fellow IBEW member in my local.)
Perhaps you could impart  to me some of your native American rain-making dance methods!
Hope you are well.
Best and solidarity
Steve Rossignol

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. 

Up where we live now in Idaho, almost immediately adjacent to BLM [Bureau of Land Management] turf and not far from the Caribou National Forest, we do keep our personal eyes open.  On the other hand, we're a little more concerned about earthquakes -- prevalent in Idaho -- and our insurance for that is always very current indeed.  (May 11 2012)



"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

We were talking now, of course, about the purely off-the-charts fire in Arizona.
"I don't think it's gotten to Bear Mountain," I said.  "At least not yet."
"Well, I understand they've evacuated the Blue [River] people," Joe said.
And that's getting close to the Bear Mountain region whose long, long trail up to the fire lookout -- where I spent the summer of 1960 in splendid isolation -- begins some miles down river from the tiny spread out Blue community.  And it's obvious anything is possible now with this Rushing Horror.
We talked some about the Fire but it was, frankly, too sad. I tried out some of my thoughts.  Both of us have seen really big fires -- but never even remotely on this scale.  How much of this can be attributed to global warming/climate change is, in my opinion, speculative..  There have been many tremendous fires way back in American history [and into present times].  The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin in 1871 saw one and a half million acres burn and 2,500 people dead.  The first and biggest Tillamook Fire, 1933, [there were several in the late '30s and into the '40s] in western Oregon, burned 350,000 acres with one death.  Shifting, for the moment into another context, the fur entrepreneur, Alexander Ross, noted in the mid 1840s a massive Red River flood lake, estimated between 40 and 60 miles wide, north of present day Grand Forks.  Hard to tie global warming to those.
It's been pretty dry in the Southwest timberlands but that's not new.  A major factor in fire control does involve the buildup of brush and dead timber over the many decades since fire protection began in this country in the earlier part of the 20th century -- and natural small creeping fires, via lightning, no longer keep the forest floors clean. This was explained to me when I was a kid. The buildup of combustible material, very conducive to high-up fires, leads directly to crown fires -- which jump from tree top to tree top often faster than a person can run, scattering myriads of far ranging sparks.
In many of these Western forest areas, and this includes certain sections of the Apache forest, vast numbers of "outside" people have moved in from various parts of the country, drawn by beautiful scenery and deep blue sky and cool temperatures in the summers. This has increased tremendously in the last decade. As I often note, lightning and people start fires.  Most of these new people know little or nothing about fire dangers -- until they're directly threatened. [This present fire appears to have been started by a camp fire left unattended.]
Related to this is the fact that much fire-fighting manpower has to be used to protect the now myriad of homes.
In the old days I remember so well, there were no air tech fire control approaches -- dropping water and borate solution.  Smoke jumpers aren't used in the Southwest and the water/borate planes were just entering the situation when I was the Bear Mountain lookout in 1960.  The time-honored approach in "my day" and that of Joe, was to rush in relatively significant numbers of well trained troopers to any fire during the dry part of fire season -- and to follow up immediately with larger numbers if necessary.  That may not have been done fast enough in this Apache situation.  In any event, the planes are no substitute for foot soldiers.
And there's no question but that the increasing bureaucratization of the Forest Service has inhibited on-the-scene eclectic and effective decision making.
There is one dimension in this tragic situation which may well be stimulated by global warming.  High, strong winds used to virtually never run for much more than a day in Northern Arizona.  In this case, the winds, truly ferocious, have continued for many days.
Joe and I covered a lot of turf in our long phone visit.  After the fire piece of it and the always ritualistic recollection of some of our very early adventures, we turned to quantum physics in the context of philosophy.  He's an avid reader, more so now that his health -- though not his mind or voice -- has slipped in the last decade.  We both damned Richard Dawkins, arch atheist and super skeptic, and then got around to our mutual agreement on reincarnation into a new human form -- making it clear to one another that we're in no rush to leave the present dimension.
"But when that does come," Joe said, "I think I'd like to try another planet.  This one's too Goddamned full of people and problems."
"I think I'll stay on Earth," said I -- "Might do my college work at Chico State [California.]  I've heard that's a hell of a great party school."
We left it at that -- each of us opining that some way, some how, and wherever, we'd connect in the next Life. "Problems" -- both nature-wise and social -- will always be our vocational forte, I'm sure.
And I'll call him again before too long.  He'll still be there.
Hunter [Hunter Bear]
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
and Ohkwari'



There's a hell of a big forest fire in northeastern Arizona.  It's in turf I know well -- and it's burned at least a quarter of a million acres.  While some of that is brush, much is yellow pine, some is spruce and fir.  Those trees take ages to grow in the dry Southwest.  Reber commented on Redbadbear a couple of days ago that smoke was enveloping Albuquerque, far to the east; and that the fire wasn't getting much media coverage nationally.  It wasn't, but it's getting  somewhat more now since homes are burning and hundreds of refugees have fled to Springerville, a town to the west of the fire -- as the fire stands now, anyway.
Most people on the East and West coasts don't follow the forest fire situations in the West -- unless they happen to be occurring in southern California.  It's been my observation that that includes many radicals whose environmental interests can often -- often -- be thin, if existent at all.  Unless one can tie something to the lumber companies, there really isn't a class struggle in a forest fire.  And, as I've mentioned occasionally, while global warming might, I imagine, exacerbate the fire situation peripherally, it doesn't start fires.  People and lightning start those.  And known prolonged droughts have occurred in the Southwest for many centuries.
This fire, in its initial stages, was on the edges of what used to be the very small town of Alpine -- high up in elevation with some spruce and fir, very close to the New Mexico border [and its Catron County.]  In the old days, there were a few ranchers around Alpine and the USFS Alpine Ranger District has always been based there, first as part of the Apache National Forest [in my day] and now, via merger, the Apache/Sitgreaves National Forest. Now, there are a great many people living around there -- affluent people who've moved up into the cool climes from Phoenix or from California or various Eastern parts.  It's safe to assume that many of these have no deep feel for "the woods" and fire safety. 
The Alpine Ranger District was one of the last districts in the USFS' Region 3 to fall into bureaucratic ways.  I started my forest fire control career in my mid-teens, far below the legal age of 18.  During those years, I was involved in the Coconino National Forest, based at Flagstaff.  Things were pretty non-bureaucratic and hang-loose -- and very effective with respect to fire-fighting but, even then, there were signs of "tightening things up."  When I returned from the Army, I found that several old and good friends of mine -- including a district ranger -- were gone from the Coconino.  The ranger had been transferred to Region 3's "Siberia", the Alpine District of the Apache, largely because of his opposition to the voracious lumber companies based at Flagstaff.  Friends of his, and of mine, went with him.  When  I visited them in '55, everything was hang-loose at Alpine and very effective on all fronts.  It remained that way for awhile.  In 1959, it took me only one minute to secure a good summer USFS job out of Alpine for a 17 year old student of mine from Nebraska, a sharp guy from a very tough and low-income family situation and for whom I'd secured a good college scholarship in an eastern state.  A year after that, I put in my pleasantly very isolated full summer stint on high up Bear Mountain -- the most isolated fire lookout in Arizona -- relating by radio directly to Alpine. [This current fire horror has NOT gotten into the Bear Mountain setting.]  But only a few years after that. bureaucratization reached into the Alpine District situation.  My ranger friend survived but, in time, passed away.  Another good friend, early on, transferred to the U.S. Park Service and finished his government career in that context.
Yes, the weather has been fluky -- downright weird and very dangerous.  And there are vastly larger numbers of "outside" people in that close-to-my-heart setting than there were when I was a relative kid.  And the Forest Service, wedded to chain-of-command rigidities and often saddled with just-out of forestry school "shave tail" assistant rangers, often lacks the knowledge and ability to make quick and eclectic -- and effective -- strategic moves that involve not just airborne tech, but tough and savvy ground crews in substantive numbers.
Now, of course, I'm in Idaho, and not in the Alpine, Arizona region. And my thoughts are admittedly speculative. But I do know something about all of this.
And my thoughts are very sad.
Hunter [Hunter Bear]
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
and Ohkwari'


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.


NEW NOTE BY HUNTER BEAR:  August 20 2007

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.


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]


[Response to statements by several Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to the effect that younger Native men are losing interest in forest fire fighting -- among the reasons: increased funds from parents and grandparents, other employment opportunities, computers, other electronic and related diversions.]
This is not for me, anyway, the most encouraging story -- the ostensible decline
of Native, especially youth -- participation in brush and forest fire
challenges. When, at age 16 in 1950, I started my own career in that vein in
Northern Arizona, and continued it off and on into 1960, a high proportion of
young Native men were involved in those hard work/high risk endeavors. This was
especially the case on the big fires, where tribal crews from the reservations
-- Navajo and Apache and Hopi especially in Northern Arizona -- were legendary.
I'd still be inclined to say that the proportion of Native firefighters remains
higher than that of other ethnicities. Good pay, the stimulating bite of
genuine danger and risk, equalitarian always -- and Saving the Wilds.


Thanks to L. and J. for the comments on forest fires, Native firefighting, and, to some extent, the "homes of the wealthy."  I really do feel the latter point given by L. -- Natives possibly not especially interested in protecting the homes of the wealthy -- is a minor one in any event.  That's been magnified by the much publicized fire situation in western -- essentially coastal -- California.  Most forest and brush firefighting are in relatively remote areas -- often accessible only by very rudimentary roads and trails [if those]. 
Fires are Horror for everyone and everything and the negative effects are not only widely and wildly lethal -- but remain [e.g. death and erosion] -- for a vastly long time, especially in comparatively dry regions where tree growth is very slow.  The first fire I fought in June 1950 -- the "A1 Mountain Burn" -- not only destroyed much Ponderosa Yellow Pine but came extremely close to taking Flagstaff with it.  The second fire for me followed almost immediately thereafter.  I fought that one on the lines and was then shifted to the job of bull cook in fire camp for a spell -- and, from that vantage point, I later described in a much now reprinted short story, "The Destroyers," the hideous effects on All Life.  [If you missed that story, you can pick it up via the link on my e signature immediately following this.]  I've fought many fires directly on the lines -- and used to do fire lookout work as well.  We've always known that fire protection in the woods can often create a sea of underbrush -- and, when fire comes, that leads to crown fires -- tree top to tree top -- with great speed, often faster than a person can run.  Without getting into all of the ecological factors, that is the objective situation.  And we have to deal with it.  I talk about much of all of this in my Forest Fires in the West -- which some have seen but some probably haven't.
Forest fires [and I use this term to cover timber and brush/grass situations] are simply Hell.
Best, Hunter Bear


Hey Jack:

Good to get your letter on forest fires and fire lookouts.

Beginning in my mid-teens, I worked for the Coconino National Forest for three summers.
The first summer, I fought fires.  The second summer I fought
fires and also was a substitute fire lookout -- when the regular lookouts
were taking time off.  In that situation I was usually on Mt Elden,
initially reachable only by trail, which overlooks Flagstaff.  The regular
lookout was Bill Pratt, an older man and a Laguna Indian who was a good
friend of Dad's.  I learned much about lookout work that second summer.  The
third summer saw me as a regular fire lookout -- on Mt Elden and then on
Woody Mountain, sw of Flagstaff.  During those three years, I also did fire
work in the fall and spring when I could get away from school. In the years
that followed, I fought various fires in Northern Arizona -- all over, but
not as a regular employee.  In the summer of 1960, I did the Bear Mountain
Lookout thing -- the most remote lookout in the state.

If you haven't seen it, you should read my forest fire short story, The
Destroyers.  There may be fairly recent print copies around your house -- 
but here's the link.  Dawn quite kindly typed it out several years ago so we
could put it on our website:

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.

Now, I understand, there are often laser arrangements -- but, although I don't know
much about those, I imagine it's kind of the same principle.
The laser approaches are supposed to replace the consistent human lookout -- but I
don't think they ever can or do in the same highly expert way.  Committed humans
are needed. always in all phases of forest/brush fire control work.

[Hereabouts in our part of Idaho -- where there's much Bureau of Land Management

turf as well as the Caribou National Forest -- some fire-detecting lasers are used.  But I'm
much intrigued by the fact that Federal agency government "spotter" planes are very, very
frequently in the air during fire season. So I am hardly the only savvy guy skeptical of the laser thing!]
And the Lookout always has to Keep Looking.

I kept a careful log in a big yellow book.  I wrote down everything even
remotely relevant that occurred -- with time and location and details.

At night, I'd have Coleman white gas lanterns [usually two of them] but I
always turned in pretty early.  Always had a rifle.  On Bear Mtn I had a
Winchester Model 95 .35 WCF lever action.

As I say, Jack, I'm a kind of loner -- always have been.  So lookout work
and minimal -- or even no direct human contact -- ever bothered me one bit.
When you're up there, you are literally on top of a big corner of the world.
That's truly great for me.

I do remember one case where the lookout on Saddle Mountain cracked up
because of the isolation and had to be brought down, replaced.

One of my great highlights came in the summer of 1951 when I was subbing for
Bill Pratt on Mt Elden.  I spotted a small smoke, very far off to the
southwest -- 'way out of my range. It was close to Sycamore Canyon.  My
reading was 239 1/2.  I called it in.  The dispatcher, Keith Hunter at
Flagstaff, called the four lookouts in that general region -- but none had
spotted it, even though they should have.  He told them they'd been trumped
by a hawk-eyed 17 year old on Elden.  Three of the lookouts took that in
good grace but the guy on Volunteer Mtn was royally pissed.  That was my
final day for that sub stint and I took the trail down from Elden that
evening and was picked up by a Forest Service vehicle.  Then, riding back to
Flagstaff, I was told that "Keith wonders if you'd like to go to that fire
you spotted -- right now, tonight."  I was delighted to do so, and so I went
to the fire with Bob Legg, a professional -- and it was near Kelsey Spring,
in the far upper reach of Sycamore.  There I met two of the lookouts I'd
earlier trumped -- they'd gone to the fire -- but they were friendly and
complimentary.  The guy from Volunteer was not among them.

Well, that's a rough sketch, Jack, of a great life.  One I've always
remembered with great clarity.

You'd like it, and you'd do well as a Lookout and/or a fire fighter.

Keep me posted, buddy.

As Ever,

John or Hunter or Hunter Bear or Whatever [known in the Army as "Tex."]

COMMENT [MARCH 23 2009]:

Thanks for sending this, which I really enjoyed. I'm also cc'ing my partner, Vivian Demuth, who has worked as a fire lookout for about 15 summers in the boreal forest of the Canadian Rockies.  Vivian has a terrific novel about a firelookout community called Eyes of the Forest, published in 2007 by a Canadian publisher, Smoky Peace Press. My own poems written while visiting Vivian at her lookout for a week or two each summer for about 7 years are in my new book--Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull.  My visits have mostly been pleasureable getaways from NYC, with the exception of one summer when Vivian and I had to respond to a helicopter crash on the side of the mountaintop, which is what I wrote about in the counterpunch essay that Sam mentions below.
With all best wishes,
Eliot Katz


Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by NaŽshdoŽiŽbaŽiŽ
and Ohkwari'
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