Firefighters in the Field: Mid-Season Stories – Lightning, Smokes, Coffee Sampling, and Clover
It’s certainly not parade weather outside my window this morning: cold, wet, foggy. “Obscured,” I said in my AM weather report at 0745. “Zero visibility.” But that doesn’t dampen my mood. The days like today, “Romeo Whisky” days (code for rain showers), mean nothing is going to burn, and I’ll stay down on the ground until the fog breaks, drinking coffee and writing, and spending most of the day in long johns, wool socks, and an old pajama shirt because, with zero visibility, there’s a zero percent chance I’ll have any visitors today.
Rainy days are good days for reflecting. It’s been a great season thus far. It’s my third year out here. The transition from town-life to tower-life was easy on me. Whereas, my first two seasons, I felt like a chicken with her head cut off, getting dropped off, feeling panicky, not sure what to do, and unpacking ten thousand things at once. I don’t miss that. This year, it felt like I was coming home. I know the cabin, the tower, and routine so well now. I know my neighbours, the dispatchers, and many of the firefighting crews. There’s a certain calm I’m awarded for being out here, enduring the hard part, which, for me, is the isolation, and that’s how I know exactly where I am in the world.
The first climb after a long season is always a bit shaky. I pulled the harness over my head like an old sweater. I clipped into the cable and wrapped my hand around the first rung, and up, up, up, 100 rungs up, I went. I have to admit: I’m afraid of heights. I wish I could say I just monkeyed my way up to the top. Nope. It was a slow, scary climb, the winds gusting at 40km/hr, and I felt like a leaf on the ladder. Today, mid-season, I’m way over the fear. I can zip up in ninety seconds.
The view from the top, to me, is the best view in the world. I know there are lookout towers down south in Calgary situated atop 8,000-foot-high mountains, who look out over a rocky, snow-peaked paradise. But honestly, I’ve traveled around the world to beautiful places. I’ve laid eyes on the Rift Valley in the heart of East Africa. I’ve looked down upon a natural limestone bridge, a series of emerald coloured pools of water, in Semuc Champey, Guatemala. I’ve gazed off the shores of the north beach in Haida Gwaii to see Alaska, a blue sleeping giant on the horizon. But I wouldn’t trade my 40-km-radius view of spruce and swamp for any other view in the world, mosquitoes included. That probably makes you laugh, or maybe you just feel sorry for me.
But every day out here I witness something so beautiful, so unexpected from Mother Nature, that it steals the breath right out of my lungs. So pull up a stool, grab a coffee, and a “chocolate chip cookie”, as Ralph, the Tower Grandfather of the forest, would say to me over the phone last year, tower to tower. Let’s trade stories. Other than spotting smokes, that’s my favourite thing to do out here.
Hardest part of the season thus far. May was a drought, straight up. I opened mid-month, and started the following day on extreme hazard, aka, spending 11-hours in the cupola. That continued for over three weeks. It wasn’t the long days up in the sky that stressed me out this year though, I’ve grown accustomed to that. Actually, you should expect that in May, the month where we get the most frequent, and often intense, wildfires on the landscape. What was hard was the scarcity of rain water. My barrels were hollow for days on end. I only brought 25 gallons of non-drinking water in with me, water for washing dishes and showering. That was something new to deal with this year. I rationed water so very carefully. In one week, I used only 5 gallons of water for non-drinking/cooking purposes. In 21-days, I only shampooed my hair once. I wish I could say I embraced my hippie side, and au naturel, but no. Day after day of no rain wears on a lookout observer’s nerves. It also meant I had to trudge to the swamp, every evening, to haul black muskeg water in pails back to my garden. The mosquitoes took a lot of my blood.
Best smoke thus far. That’s a toss-up between PWF047 and PWF034. PWF-047 was only eighty kilometers to my south, a holdover wildfire from dry lightning (a wildfire that, upon ignition, smolders on the ground, undetected, but then flares up in hot, dry, gusty conditions) that broke out in late May. The lookout observer to my south expertly called it in. It blew up fast, devouring a path through parched pine and spruce. Within a day, it grew from 0.5 hectares to 1,500 hectares, and it put up an enormous, jaw dropping kind of smoke. The most beautiful smoke, however, goes to PWF034. Dry lightning lit this wildfire up over 100-kilometers to my west, giving one of the rookie lookout observers in that area a “front row ticket show”. It was a black stain on my horizon. That same day, my phones went down, so I had to climb up in the evening to make a call from the tower on my cell phone. I was grumpy to have to climb back up, but glad I did. The setting sun through the smoke was a sight too beautiful to behold. Although I’d just spent 11-hours up in the cupola, I climbed down to grab my long-lens, and spent another hour up in the sky, watching the dying light illuminate the smoke. What a moment!
Most bizarre moment so far. June brought the monsoon and then some. After two-days of being rained in, I woke up, at 4 am because “oh, I can’t hear rain anymore!” Gleefully, peeked outside my window and, snow. Lots and lots of snow. That happened twice. On June 13th, I reported 3 centimeters of snow. And five days later, it was plus twenty-eight degrees. Go figure.
Proudest moment. Calling in a wildfire caused by dry lightning at 0935. Wildfires don’t usually bust out in the morning. My neighbour to the south called in dry lightning. I went up to take a look and saw a tiny white puff, practically 35 kilometers away. I hummed and hawed. Was it a spook (moisture cloud from a storm cell that can look a lot like smoke)? I trusted my gut and called it in. “Pre-smoke,” I said over the radio. The crew flew over, but couldn’t find it, as rain had come overhead. But the following day, another crew found it. “A one tree wonder,” they said over the radio, and later the crew leader would tell me it was “no bigger than a campfire”. That was a cool moment for me. It meant my estimated distance was pretty much dead on – and that I hadn’t been “spooked” by a spook, or “false smoke” (phenomena that looks like smoke, but isn’t smoke).
Most “electrifying” experience in the tower. Literally. Oh, let me tell you about that time my cupola was struck by lightning. No big deal. My neighbour’s cupola had been hit the day before. “Direct hit” we call it, when the lightning strikes your tower. I saw the storm gathering to my west, called in a “first strike” (first lightning bolt from a cell) so I closed the cupola windows. The towers have an amazing lightning grounding system, so we’re 100% safe in the cupola. I was sending a text message to a tower neighbour, when I glanced up, saw the light coming at me horizontally, and ZAP! The hairs on my arms stood on end. I tensed, waiting for the scary part, the thunder that follows. It’s directly on top of your head, it sounds like the sky is a piano falling down a flight of stairs that’s nanoseconds away from crushing you. BAM! My hands shook, pulse raced. Later, I looked at my battery clock under the firefinder and saw that it had been reset to 12:00. What?! Turns out, “fingers” off the lightning bolt had crept in through the slightly open window and struck the firefinder. “Lightning is always looking for ionized air,” a tower manager explained to me. I thanked the tower gods that I had been standing on the opposite side of the firefinder. What a wild day.
Most memorable visitors thus far. The biggest myth about being a lookout observer is that we’re alone 100% of the time. NOT TRUE! We actually get quite a few visitors and “traffic” as we say. Radio calls from crews on patrol. Crews on “man up”, crews doing project work, crews that drop by to fuel up. There’s even a “Tower Tour” in our district, where the wildfire managers fly to every tower to visit with us, inspect the site, and address any concerns. I’ve baked four dozen cookies this year for crews and made probably eight pots of coffee. In a guest book that dates back to the 1960s, visitors often wrote “COFFEE SAMPLING” under the ‘purpose of visit’. I just love that.
Every time the helicopter lands, Holly the Tower Dog goes bananas, bolting to the airstrip to greet the visitors. I’m no different. If I had a tail, I’d probably wag it, too. These visits mean an opportunity to socialize, face to face, drink coffee, talk about the smoke and wildfires, talk about what we’re going to do in the off-season, and feel a sense of comradery in the forest. I probably talk a mile a minute, but the crews are really patient and friendly. I think they can sympathize with the isolation. “I couldn’t do it,” most of them confess to me. This year, I had a Helitack crew (HAC2 to be exact) basically living on-site, on man-up days. One day, they left me these little sticky notes, hidden all over my kitchen and office, written with fortune-cookie messages like There’s always a friend nearby, or Wake up to your own morning glory (that one was stuck to a package of morning glory seeds). I burst out laughing at each one. (Side note: that was particularly special because my “little cousin”, Oscar, (who is like 6 feet and not little) is on that crew. Oscar and I grew up on opposite ends of the country from one another, so truly, we’re getting to know one another out at my wildfire tower. It’s so cool to see him in the yellow Nomex and trade stories – and I’m so proud of him).
I’ve had a few crews drop by to help with project work. They felled trees that broke under the weight of heavy, wet snow from the snowpocalypse. Brushed the willows encroaching on the edges of the tower site. Dug me a new outhouse hole. Replaced the rotting door on my garden shed. They even felled a couple trees and bucked them up, notching the ends, to help me build new garden beds. That was particularly nice, as gardening is one of my favourite pastimes out here.
The guys and gals on these crews are awesome. Many of them are travelers, too, and just truly interesting individuals who are drawn to the strange subculture of fighting wildfires. There is no shortage of unique characters in the forest. Perhaps, that’s been the biggest surprise about this job, that I’ve made friends with people who, otherwise, I probably never would’ve crossed paths with.
But the award of “most memorable visitor award” goes to…drum roll, please…
The award goes to Clover, a cinnamon black bear who stopped by last week; not for a cuppa Joe sampling, but to sample the half-mowed clover beneath my wildfire tower. It was a rainy day, so the pup and I were in the cabin. I glanced outside my kitchen window, and oh! It’s sort of like a game of “what doesn’t belong?” That giant, gleaming cinnamon hump, right under my tower, DOES NOT BELONG. Tower people are always dealing with bears and 99% of the time the sightings and interactions are harmless. I was glad to have a window in between the bear and I, however. I watched the bear for a few minutes. It sat down on its butt and stuffed clawfuls of clover into its giant maw. The cinnamon coat was just gorgeous though, illuminated by the evening sun.
That’s my favourite part about this job; these unexpected, unanticipated moments, whether it’s witnessing a wildfire, or getting struck by lightning, seeing wildlife, or greeting your human friends who drop out of the sky to say hello and sample the coffee. It’s not always the big events, either. One evening while picking wildrose petals, I stumbled upon a crab spider who’d bitten into a giant bumblebee. Crab spiders can change colour to camouflage themselves in the centre of a flower. They wait and ambush their prey. I get to witness so many small, and large acts out here, that would otherwise go unwitnessed. Maybe it’s all futile and doesn’t really matter. But these things matter to me. I thought about that spider and bee, how neat it was to watch nature in action, all evening long.
After a few minutes, I banged on the window, scaring off the bear. I watched him lope off, that enormous behind bouncing up and down, until he disappeared into the bush.
No two days are the same out here. What will July and August bring? Come back in a couple of months. I’ll put the coffee on. Pull up a stump, and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.