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
 

"It's a primitive area, where you're going boy," (said Japhy Ryder). "From my cabin I could see the lamps of Desolation after dark, Jack Joseph reading his geology books and in the day we flashed by mirror to align our firefinder transits, accurate to the compass."

"Gee, how'll I ever learn all that, I'm just a simple poet bum."

--Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

In 1956, Jack Kerouac arrived at the summit of Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington. He would spend the next 63 days staffing a fire lookout there, alone in varying states of ecstasy and despair and near-crippling boredom, interspersed with  moments of standing on his head and thinking the world had gone upside-down mad. Two years later -- 50 years ago now -- he recounted that time in The Dharma Bums. His breathless descriptions of himself writing haikus to rainbows in that aching high lonely helped launch the rucksack revolution, with the fire spotter at its vanguard.

Sadly, the fire lookout is no longer prime habitat for the backcountry transcendentalist. Although there are still a few surviving huts where sentries sit in fierce solitude, most are boarded up -- shrines to a superseded romanticism. Washington state began to decommission its huts in the 1990s; the last was shuttered in 2002. In their place is what Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland calls "a hybrid of the human and the machine": satellites sweeping overhead, an alert public watching for smoke on the ground, and, on the fourth floor of the Natural Resources Building in Olympia, Wash., Andrew McNair.

McNair is rotund of body and mind, with a shaggy billow of auburn hair and a full beard. He has literary aspirations and is a Kerouac fan, in like mind writing a letter to a friend on an unending roll of receipt tape. And for five years, he has driven down from Seattle during the fire season to work the weekend shift as, well, what exactly?

"Dispatcher isn't the right word," McNair, 28, says. "Certainly not 'lookout.' I'm more of a gatekeeper."

Fire Gatekeeper it is, then. Oh, and one last thing: McNair would like you to know that he has beeturia.

Saturday
Beeturia is a rare condition that afflicts about 10 to 14 percent of the population. Its symptoms are largely aesthetic: If someone who has beeturia eats beets, his or her urine turns spectacularly red, like Kool-Aid. Wikipedia knows of no way to test for the condition, other than to eat beets and see what comes out. So, with no small amount of empirical glee, McNair ate as many pickled beets as he could stomach on Friday, then photographed the results; this July morning, he posted those results on his blog, where he writes under the moniker "Melvillean." (A former graduate student in English, McNair has read Moby-Dick seven times.) All weekend, he will exult over his friends' congratulations as they trickle in.

But first, the fires. McNair calls the Emergency Operations Center to let them know that he has taken the reins. He then settles into a chair, hooks a portable hard drive that has over 96,000 songs to the computer, and kicks off his sandals to the smooth grooves of iTunes. The watcher is watching. Or listening. Or waiting for the phone to ring. Something like that.

He doesn't wait long. The first call comes at 9:14. "That's the Resource Protection phone," McNair says over its chirps, "probably for one of the dispatchers in the other room." He answers with practiced aplomb.

"Resource Protection, this is Andrew-- Just a minute. --" (Pressing buttons) -- "Jen, Line C. -- You're welcome."

He hangs up and offers a primer on the finer points of dispatcher etiquette. "When we don't have a lot of calls, that's when I acknowledge when they say 'thank you.' Of course, that's also when they tend to thank me."

Ah.

"And that 'Just a minute / Jen Line C' business is probably what you'll hear the most while you're here."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.