All along the watchtower

A weekend shift with Washington's Fire Gatekeeper

  • Andrew McNair, top -- not your average firewatcher -- on the job in the Natural Resources Building in Olympia, Washington.

    Eric Wagner
  • Andrew McNair

    Eric Wagner
  • Andrew McNair

    Eric Wagner
  • Andrew McNair

    Eric Wagner
  • A red beet.

  • Andrew McNair posted this reference to beets on his Web site to help set the stage for "Operation Do We Have Beeturia: RED DAWN."

    Andrew McNair

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Jen is one of the actual dispatchers. She and her ilk are responsible for shuttling the state's fire crews around to blazes hither and yon. Jen works in a room down the hall, one with a large hexagonal table and computer screens and a giant map of Washington that has magnets of helicopters and trucks and flames stuck on it. Even after she has left for the day, the room still bristles with energy.

Not that McNair's days are devoid of stimuli. At 10:14, the other phone, the FireLine, rings. Its officious chirrup is both ominous and exhilarating in a cubicley sort of way. Somewhere, as McNair likes to say, Washington is burning. He answers, his diction crisp and precise, as befits the action afoot.

"Natural Resources, are you reporting a fire? -- What county? -- Lewis? No, you'll have to check the burn ban. -- There's an 800 number. -- 1-800-323-BURN. It's really easy to remember. -- Well, you have a touch-tone phone, right? -- There will be a prompt, and then you press the first four letters of your -- -- --well, it's county-by-county, so -- -- 1-800-323-BURN. -- You're welcome."

Maybe "exhilarating" isn't the word I want. "I get a lot of those kinds of calls," McNair says, "from people wanting to know if they can burn a pile of leaves or something."

But at 12:25 the FireLine rings again, this time in earnest.

"Natural Resources, do you have a fire to report? -- I'm in Olympia -- You're in Lincoln County? -- If you had to locate the smoke, where would you say it is?"

There are six fire regions in the state, and Lincoln is in the southeast. Protocol dictates that McNair call the Central Washington Incident Communication Center (CWICC), which will mobilize local fire personnel. But it turns out there are still some tricky jurisdictional shoals to navigate: the caller may be in Lincoln County, but the fire is across the Columbia River in Ferry County, which is in the northeast region, so McNair must call the Northeast Washington Incident Communication Center (NEWICC). But wait: That part of Ferry County is on the Colville Indian Reservation, so McNair must call the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which he does, patching the caller through and hanging up.

"And that," he says, "is when I wash my hands of it."

Except he doesn't. We're both curious to find the fire, so we get out a gazetteer. After some topographical groundtruthing and figuring out which way is north and all that, we deduce that the smoke is coming from page 52 at a place called Hell Gate Canyon. We have place names, we can see the contours of the canyon and the green that, according to the legend, is a forest. I for one feel tough and rugged, as if we've accomplished something, as if we're right on top of the fire, staring it down with a weathered eye as we plot its extermination. Except we haven't, and we're not. We sit down and check our e-mail.

The weekend's tally

Variations on a theme of "Just a minute / Jen, Line C" 93

Calls to the FireLine 30

Calls about fires 18

Actual fires across the state 9

Comments on the beeturia
posts 27

It's drizzling the next morning when we drive to Olympia, and McNair is in a mild fit of pique. Each day, he has to fill out a worksheet with the hourly amounts of precipitation which 13 airports in as many counties received the previous day. During the dry fire months, the columns tend to be nothing but zeros. But rain means irksome sums and a lot of erasing, which makes the task take longer. "Better for it to be dry," McNair says. "I don't like the busywork."

Sunday is quieter than Saturday, although the FireLine is technically busier. That is to say, it rings more, but only because NEWICC is testing a new telephone system. Callers trying to reach NEWICC dispatchers are supposed to press "8," but few wait long enough to hear that. Instead, they press "5" for forest fires, which directs them to McNair, who patiently explains throughout the day that they need to try again and press "8."

With the fires behaving themselves for the most part, McNair turns to his principle extracurricular objective. Dreaming big after yesterday's successes, he has decided to bring his beeturia to a wider audience, because when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. He writes a post ("Rocket Me to Internet Stardom!") that asks people to do a Google search for "beeturia" and click on the link to his blog. When they do, Google will think his beeturia is more important than all the other beeturias out there, and so bring him the small measure of fame he feels he's earned. Because, as he writes, "I'm the only person on the Internet I can find who has documented (with wild abandon and unrestrained merriment) deliberately playing with his beeturia. I clearly deserve to be NUMBER ONE."

Someone writes to assure McNair that he will soon have the most famous urine on the Internet.

The rest of the day drifts in the doldrums, with calls about small fires and some online Scrabble to keep cabin fever at bay. Near the end of the shift, after the phones have quieted, we take a turn through the cubicle hedgerows to go "trick-or-treating," as McNair calls it -- sampling from the bowls of provender on peoples' desks. The pickings are good: M&Ms, peanuts, even pistachios -- a special treat. A little after 9 p.m., McNair calls Tony at the Emergency Operations Center, giving FireLine back to them for the night. The handoff is ritualized, but not perfunctory. Tony and McNair linger on the phone, chatting about nothing, two men alone at their respective posts, talking across empty space. They wish each other well, then hang up, and McNair leaves.

"It's a good job," he says as we head down to the parking lot. "I think I'm performing a service, and I'm part of a larger effort to help people, and that's nice." He pauses. "Really, though, I only feel like I'm part of it when the phone rings."

Hozomeen, Hozomeen, the most mournful mountain I ever seen, and the most beautiful as soon as I got to know it and saw the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world.

Maybe. But here, it's the fluorescent lights that will flicker into eternity. At least, until the last one out turns them off.

Eric Wagner freelances from Seattle, Washington. He has not checked to see whether he has beeturia. Nor does he plan to.
Note: As this article went to press, McNair accepted a full-time position in the Seattle tech industry, which is similarly rich in lore and icons.