Fifty summers and 360 degrees

One woman's lifetime spotting fires

  • Nancy Wood, top, in a fire tower in the Siskiyou Mountains.

    US Forest Service
  • The rustic Lake Mountain tower and the leaky outhouse.

 

SISKIYOU COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

Everywhere I go, everyone's rubbing it in," says Nancy Hood, after dispatching her weather observations by radio to Yreka, Calif. "It's embarrassing," the 70-year-old declares before biting into a bologna, cheese and peanut butter sandwich. Having lived atop four remote mountains in the Klamath National Forest for most of her life, Hood prefers a little privacy as she makes local history.

This is Hood's 50th consecutive summer staffing a fire lookout in the steep, smoky Siskiyou Mountains. Over the course of her career, she's stood guard amid nature's stunning expressions -- watching swollen clouds spit lightning and wind-driven wildfires run up canyons. Hood's years in isolation have given her self-reliance and the heart of a poet. They've also left her with, well, a few peculiarities. She puts peanut butter on everything, even tuna fish sandwiches ("It helps keep everything together") and her letters read like a logbook entry: "Got your card."

Sold in kits and carried by mules, fire lookouts appeared in earnest on Western mountaintops after the colossal fires of 1910. In 1913, Miss Hallie Daggett, the first female Forest Service field officer, rode a horse up to Eddy Gulch lookout in the Klamath National Forest. She was, her supervisor wrote, "devoid of the timidity which is ordinarily associated with her sex," unafraid of "anything that walks, creeps or flies." Her success wowed the nation. The Sacramento Bee headlined: "Withal, First Woman Fire Warden Is Very Feminine and Also Quite Efficient."

In 1959, when Hood ascended her first lookout, her supplies and role were much like Daggett's. She ate crackers and soup for a month. She drank straight from a spring. She packed a rifle and a pistol. And despite all her hankering, she was not allowed to work on a Forest Service burn crew, setting fire to logging slash, because she was a woman. 

At the time, Hood was a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student in Sacramento. She was spending summer break on her parent's property in Siskiyou County when neighbors told her about a vacant fire lookout. Soon after, her mother drove her up a remote fir-lined road and dropped her off at the 6,768-foot-high summit of Dry Lake Mountain. There, Hood began to study the horizon.

She learned to distinguish wildfires from trains belching smoke, logging operations kicking up dust and drainages seeping fog. She competed with a community of lookouts to be the first to spot a fire and radio dispatch -- relaying her station's azimuth to a fire, the smoke's color and volume, the fire's aspect and acreage, a storm's intensity and direction -- all to prepare the firefighters for initial attack. Hood dropped out of  school. A degree, she figured, would just lead to a life inside Forest Service headquarters -- and offer her no such views.

"I'm an introvert. I found my perfect job, and I didn't get distracted," says Hood from her current perch on Lake Mountain. Here, in the company of rock wrens, she's counted the surrounding 296 foxtail pines. Prevailing west winds cool her during the day, and at night she listens to classical music and studies the stars. Over the years, she's become the Klamath's keeper of lookout history. 

As the last patches of snow in the Marble Mountain Wilderness flash like mirrors in the sun, Hood pages through her lookout scrapbook, sometimes squinting a blue eye while she digs for exact dates. At a Polaroid of Dry Lake, she pauses. Though she's staffed other lookouts for longer time spans, Dry Lake ignites her stories. During her nine years there, she saw bears as big as her '47 Buick and buried her cat Hercules after he was mistaken for a bobcat and shot by hunters. ("I would've believed them if they said cougar.") She won an award for vigilance: In the middle of the night, she alerted crews to the Red Fir fire, quick enough for them to catch it. But her photo of Dry Lake depicts the tiny structure engulfed in flames -- a victim of "winter lightning." Fire crews burnt down the building in 1970 to avoid liability.

Hood, who's outlasted half her lookouts, never gripes about how little she's paid. She lives a humble lifestyle in the off-season, wintering on the old family property in a "cabin unsuitable for company." She hauls and splits her own firewood, and works on her 1950 Chevy 3/4 ton and her 1951 military M38 Jeep. Single her whole life, she says: "Even in high school, the boys and I would just talk cars."

These days, the fate of lookouts rouses Hood more than lightning and fire. When she started, the Klamath staffed 22 fire lookouts. Now, it's down to eight. Today, a woman serves as chief of the Forest Service, and women ride four-wheelers and command front-page fires. But the agency pumps millions of dollars into aircrafts, and active fire lookouts -- and folks who believe in their value -- are a rarity. Some lookouts are spruced up for the agency to rent out as vacation getaways; others, like an Oregon lookout due north of Lake Mountain, suffer vandalism and have been replaced with a camera.

Lake Mountain -- the Klamath's oldest lookout, built in 1911 -- is scheduled for maintenance this year, and potentially a fancy new toilet. But don't get Hood started on the topic: "I'd rather have the money go into the building," she says. The south-facing windows leak like a sieve. The outhouse leaks too, but Hood's happy keeping an umbrella in there. "I keep telling them I live in the building. Don't spend too long on the toilet." And if those contractors keep showing up on her one day off, she warns, she'll get so mad "you might see an awful lot of blue smoke boiling up over Lake Mountain."

The author also staffs a fire lookout in the Siskiyous.

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