Firefighters in the Field: Flying Back to the Fire Tower
I’m stuffed into the back of a medium helicopter, knees pressed up against my dog’s kennel, surrounded by the boxed and bagged belongings – bulk dried foods, books, bedding, and clothes – the material goods that will get me through the next four months at the fire tower.
I peered into the dog kennel. Holly, a husky-shepherd mix, is curled up, asleep. The way she jumped so effortlessly into the helicopter and the way she’s sleeping through the mad rattle of the helicopter’s flight tells me she knows the drill. This is Holly’s third season as a “Tower Dog”, which makes it my third season as a Lookout Observer. Just like the geese, the Sandhill cranes, and the tree swallows, we’re migrating north, flying back to our “nest” in the northern boreal forest.
Through the headset, I hear my supervisor, Jorge, a Wildfire Ranger, chatting away with the pilot, Tara. They’re talking about her recent vacation in Mexico. It occurs to me, this will be my last brush with human – face to face, anyway – contact for some time. Maybe I should participate in the conversation, I think. But I’m too distracted by my nerves: a mixture of excitement and fear surging through my body. I looked out the window at the world below me, the world I’m leaving behind for the summer, and say my silent farewells: Goodbye, farmhouse. Goodbye, cows. Goodbye, paved highway. Goodbye, truck.
I won’t see these human features, up close anyways, until the leaves on the trees turn from green to gold, until I fly back to “civilization” in September, and the game changes from “goodbye” to a very excitable “HELLO!” (I had the pilot who took me out last year in hysterics).
This year, getting ready for the fire season was like clockwork.
I fell into the rhythm of preparation with such ease: I broke out my bins from storage. I planted my basil and zucchini seeds. I curated a selection of books. I made my annual shopping trip to the grocery store in Edmonton to stock up on dried foods (which drew the same bewildered stares from strangers as they gazed upon this tiny woman pushing a shopping cart piled high with coffee, canned peaches, peanut butter, pasta, and an enormous sack of flour). Last year, I spent so much money they “gifted” me with a frozen turkey. This year, I laughed, when they told me my “prize” was two packs of sunscreen – perfect for those long, hot days in July up in the tower dome, searching for smoke and subsequently ‘cooking’ under the magnified heat.
I savoured forkfuls of food at my favourite restaurants, shared with my favourite people. I hugged my nephew and kissed my niece, fast asleep in her crib, and whispered, “Next time I see, you’ll be walking in the world.” It occurred to me, as I said goodbye to them, that I’ve become the “crazy aunt” archetype in their small, innocent worlds – and that makes me, bizarrely, proud.
They aren’t alone. Many people think I’m crazy to do this job. I often give people the bare bones, short-and-sweet version of what I do: I live alone for four months, wake up every day at exactly the same time, and climb a 100-foot steel frame tower to watch for smoke. I record weather twice a day and make my reports to the dispatch team in Peace River. I watch for wildfires caused by lightning. I watch for wildfires caused by farm equipment, trees falling on powerlines, and the sparks from trains screeching along the tracks. I also warn aircraft if there’s hail, lightning, or extreme weather in the area.
I live in a simple, but comfortable cabin with no running water. I bake bread, cook my own meals, grow herbs and vegetables and flowers (food for the soul), and pick an abundance of wild foods: berries, spruce tips, and dandelions. I wash my clothes by hand, using an old washboard. I ration every drop of my precious rainwater. I compost my organic waste in vermiculture (worm) bins. I make my fresh food stretch out for thirty-odd-days.
When it’s dark, I light a candle.
When I’m restless, I busy my hands with yard work and chores. I have absolutely no shortage of things to do – writing, reading, hiking, gardening, and making things out of clay. However some days, I do absolutely nothing. I give myself up to the moment, and take to studying the macro view – trees, leaves, clouds, sunsets, stars, the northern lights – or the micro view – wildflowers, spiders, a wild diversity of pollinators. I don’t write that to call myself a romantic, or a slacker. That’s actually in my job mandate: to observe, with eagle eyes, the weather, the forest, and the world around me.
When I tell people about this job, they say, “I could never do that.”
I simply shrug my shoulders, because no one ever really knows what they can and can’t hack until they give it a shot. I was so fearful in my first season as a lookout: of isolation, of charging grizzly bears, of missing a smoke – the list goes on. But I learned that I was more resilient than I ever knew. That I was capable of working alone, calling the shots on my own, living with my mistakes, and managing myself and a property in the middle of nowhere.
Being a lookout is, in my humble opinion, one of the most challenging – and misunderstood – jobs in the forest. Not in physical terms, of course. My friends who actually fight the fires, who trudge through swampy muskeg carrying pumps and hose packs, who sweat out long days pulling hose and swinging Pulaski’s, take down deadfall with chainsaws, and sacrifice their bodies to physical exhaustion – no contest – these women and men are the true heroes of the forest.
But try being a lookout observer for 135 days, without break. It’s hard in a different, much slower, quieter kind of way – punctuated by the sudden, momentary sight of smoke on the horizon, which sends your adrenalin racing! And then, it’s quiet again. There’s nothing, really, that can prepare you for the experience of being a lookout observer, except doing it, and figuring out how to make it work for you, how to survive the bush, and yourself, and the long summer ahead of you. Every lookout observer has her/his strategies and coping mechanisms.
That said, the greatest challenges in life come hand-in-hand with enormous, exquisite rewards.
As I flew towards my third season at the fire tower, I wasn’t thinking of the hardships associated with this job. I was thinking of everything I love about being a lookout observer. The thrill and satisfaction of locating a wisp of smoke on the landscape, of making the call on the radio (“26, I’ve got a pre-smoke,”), of dispatching a helicopter with firefighters, and watching the action unfold from a distance. I’m thinking about the community of lookout observers I’ve come to befriend through many a conversation over the phone, radio, text, and email. I can’t wait to hear about what they did over the winter months. We have so much to catch up on – and so much time to catch up.
The helicopter hovered above the tower site, and slowly landed. Everything looked familiar: the yellow cabin, the engine shed, my turquoise picnic table, my garden beds – everything as I left it. As we touched done, I felt my heart thumping in my chest, practically louder than the helicopter. It’s the best kind of excitement. Holly wagged her tail, she knew where we were. “HOME IS WHERE THE TOWER IS” reads a sign in my naked garden bed, and it’s true. The fire tower has become a home – and my third season of watching for smoke is just beginning.
Here we go, yet again…
– Trina and “Holly the Tower Dog”