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Trapped by fire on a mountain lookout


Updated September 29, 2008

The fire season of 2008 will long be remembered as the most destructive ever recorded in New Mexico's Manzano Mountains. The human-caused Trigo Fire destroyed 59 homes after erratic winds pushed it from the west to the east side of the mountain range some 70 miles southeast of Albuquerque. Lightning ignited the Big Spring Fire, which torched six homes. Altogether, the two fires burned 20,000 acres of overgrown and extremely dry forest.

 I was staffing the Capilla Peak Fire Lookout on April 30 when the Trigo Fire jumped containment lines set up by firefighters. The wind had been gradually increasing all morning, and by 1 p.m., gusts erupted at 40 and 60 mph. The fire exploded and ran rapidly up the steep canyons that lead to the fire lookout. The change was stunning: In an amazingly short time, the fire started leaping from one tree to the next and shooting flames up to 100 feet in the air. Then the blaze crossed my only road out.

 The Capilla Peak lookout had been evacuated four times in the last two years because of fire, and my supervisor and I had often discussed escape routes, safety zones and what I should do in case a fire topped the ridge -- as it was doing today. I was trained to know how to deploy my fire shelter and issued fire clothing. Of course, I never thought it would happen to me. I've worked as a fire lookout in Oregon, Wyoming, South Dakota and New Mexico for 22 years, yet this was the first time fire ever seriously threatened my life.

 I left the lookout tower, took my fire shelter and dog Rosie, and hiked into the Anderson Burn from two years earlier. From there, I could see the fire continuing to build, creating its own wind and sending sparks all around me.

 I was constantly in touch with firefighters, and heard Air Attack call for a helicopter to take me out. I ran with my dog back up the ridge to the parking lot, terrified by the progress of the fire as it continued to billow and grow in my direction. Finally, I heard Helicopter 312 and saw it flying toward me. I waved and jumped up and down to make sure the pilot could see me. It circled my location four times, but the winds were blowing too hard for it to land and lift off again. The crew had to back off.

 By now, the fire was really close: It had moved only a quarter-mile away, and there was nowhere to run except back to the fire lookout. I knew it was my best bet: This cinderblock lookout on its rocky perch had survived the Anderson Fire of 2006, with only cracked windows.

 I wet towels and put them around the door and windows. And I watched as the fire continued to move in my direction. The temperature steadily rose inside the lookout. Outside, the smoke resembled a mushroom cloud after an atomic explosion. I started to panic when it obscured my view and I had trouble breathing.

Helicopter 312 continued to hover at a safe distance to the northwest of the lookout, and it was a relief when they radioed in the late afternoon to let me know the fire was backing off from the lookout. Still, flames crawled up pine trees and crept in the grass 250 yards away from me. Near dark, three structures torched in the campground below, and the fire made a last run toward the north where trees grow in a straight line to the fire lookout. I nervously watched as the blaze reached the road and burned along the edges. I rejoiced when it failed to jump across the road.

 I spent the night at the lookout, watching the fire circle the mountain, igniting trees and homes as it passed. I tried to sleep, but spent most of the night pacing the catwalk. I was mad at myself for running out of water and fresh batteries.

By morning, though, the winds had died down, and the fire seemed less intense. Mountainair Engine 402 cleared the road, and I slowly drove down the steep grade as debris burned in the road and small fires burned along both sides.

 Overnight, the landscape had become unrecognizable. I was heartbroken to see nothing but charred and dead trees. I felt exhausted but strangely triumphant: It had been a long day and night, but I'd survived.

 Dixie Boyle is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). The author of Between Land & Sky: A Fire Lookout Story, she lives in Mountainair, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].