It's not merely the opportunity to be a mountain hermit and get paid for it that's kept me coming back, year after year, for almost a full decade now. The drama of wildfire seen from above is one of the most awesome spectacles in nature. Some people are pyromaniacs; I suppose you could say I've become a pyromantic. I look out over nearly a million acres of roadless wilderness, where an upsurge of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico combines with the summertime heat of the Chihuahuan Desert to create tens of thousands of lightning strikes a year. When I spot a fire -- generally between five and 15 times a year -- it falls to my superiors to choose the response. For most of the 20th century on the West's public lands, that response was preordained: full suppression, as soon as possible. A military mindset prevailed in the early Forest Service, which viewed fire as a pernicious presence on the landscape. Smokey Bear lent a friendly PR face to the fight: "Only you can prevent forest fires!" Little attention was given to the fact that no one can prevent lightning from hitting a tree, showering the ground with embers, and starting a fire that might burn all summer.
When I first came to the Gila country, I was completely ignorant about wildfire. It had never occurred to me that fire could be beneficial to an ecosystem -- nature's way of keeping the life of the forest in balance, a normal process of disturbance and renewal. I watched in amazement as forest officials, in a radical reversal of 20th-century wildfire dogma, allowed certain lightning-caused burns to roam wherever they wanted, sometimes over tens of thousands of acres. The result is a forest far healthier than it would be otherwise: more diverse in the mosaic of its flora, more open in its ponderosa savannah, with less of the brushy ladder fuels that now make the American West an almost annual show of extreme fire behavior. Perhaps ironically, this new regime has made lookouts on the Gila more important than ever. With firefighters on the ground monitoring big blazes, we keep track of crew movements and wind shifts, offer updates on fire behavior and smoke drift. We watch the weather when crews sleep outside and let them know when lightning is near.
Although huge swaths of the forest are touched by fire here every year, I can go weeks without seeing a twist of smoke. During these lulls I simply watch and wait, my eyes becoming ever more intimate with wind-scorched desert, semi-arid grasslands, piñon-juniper foothills, ponderosa parkland, and spruce-fir high country. My goal, if I can be said to have one, is to become completely in tune with cloud and light. The cumulus build, the shadows shift, and in an hour -- or is it two? -- I'm looking at country made new. The poet Gary Snyder, who worked as a lookout in the North Cascades during the 1950s, provided the words I try to live by:
fewer the artifacts, less the words
slowly the life of it
a knack for nonattachment
When the watching gets monotonous, I find other ways to entertain myself. I descend the tower and study birds and insects and flowers. I read novels, bake cookies, chop wood, play Frisbee golf. The weather tends to be extreme in my high mountain world, so things break down, fall apart. I put them back together if I think I'll need them. Now and then a hiker shows up, allowing me to exercise my vocal cords.
It probably goes without saying that fire lookouts are not a growth industry. There were once thousands of towers scattered across America, but only a few hundred are still staffed each summer. Some Forest Service officials have predicted our impending obsolescence, thanks to better radio technology, more precise satellite imagery, perhaps even unmanned drones taking pictures on low-level flyovers. But in a place like the Gila -- where so much of the country is rugged and remote, off-limits to motorized equipment and new roads -- lookouts are still the only communication link to the outside world for certain backcountry crews. At around 13 bucks an hour, we are also far cheaper than aerial surveillance. Safety and fiscal prudence: These will be the saving graces of the lookouts who manage to hang on.
Aldo Leopold, who drafted the proposal to preserve the Gila Wilderness in 1922 -- a plan that made the headwaters of the Gila River the first place on Earth to be deliberately protected from industrial machines -- once wrote: "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"
Survey the Lower 48 on a coast-to-coast flight, and the most interesting country never fails to be that without roads. Down there, amid one of those remaining fragments of our natural heritage, is a forest that burns and a desert that spins dust devils, an ecological transition zone of great harshness and beauty. The view some days overwhelms me with its vastness, so I turn back to the earth beneath my feet. Wild candytuft blooms under the pine and fir, followed later in the season by wallflowers, paintbrush, mountain wood sorrel, Mexican silene. On my evening rambles I find Steller's jay and wild-turkey feathers, snakeskins and mule deer bones. I see bobcats and elk, black bears, Montezuma quail. I tread lightly, aware that I'm something of an understudy in the theater of evolution that has played out in these mountains for millennia. The truth is, I'm no longer fit for any job that involves staff meetings, false niceties, or submission to the hive mind. I'm ruined for anything you'd consider a proper and respectable career. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Philip Connors is the author of Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco/HarperCollins). He lives and works in southwest New Mexico.