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there are still a few surviving huts where sentries sit in fierce solitude, most are boarded up -- shrines to a superseded romanticism.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.

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."


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

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