All along the watchtower
by Eric Wagner
"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there are still a few surviving huts where sentries sit in fierce solitude, most are boarded up -- shrines to a superseded romanticism.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."
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.
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
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.