Friday, June 16, 2006

Fire Watch

by Jackie Johnson Maughan
(Essay first appeared as "When the Smoke Clears" in Women's Sports and Fitness, September 1996. Author retains rights.)

It's the middle of August and for days I've been on extended hours--this means I cannot leave the 30 foot tower except to use the latrine.

My days have been running to 12 hours during this fire burst. Fifteen miles to my east is the big 15,000 acre fire, to my west another smaller fire; I've been watching the air tanker deliver retardant to contain it. This is dangerous because the canyon is steep and narrow and the pilot must get low enough to do some good.

Tonight after dark I sit out on the catwalk and watch the big fire. I think about the 600-plus men and women down there, remember the storm that caused it, how I called it in, watching as it took off--one acre, four acres, ten. It was a goner way before our initial attack forces could get there.

The moon blooms red and below the coyotes set into a dissonant howl as if they knew. Then I think, of course they know. They can see, hear, taste, smell better than I can. It makes me think of that old hymn, Amazing Grace.

Morning comes and I'm socked in by smoke, can't even see the outhouse. I'm alone, more than just lonely. I miss my husband, my friends. After all, I'm 300 miles from home. I get down maybe once a week to pick up my mail, buy groceries, refill my water containers, call home.

Summit Point Lookout, where I've lived now for 50 days, sees into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The nearest town is Halfway, Oregon, population 500. It's a 15 mile, 3000 foot climb on dirt road, then two miles by trail. Visitors are few.

These are the times I go stir crazy. Normally I can hike up and down the mountain to check up on the mule deer, the resident redtailed hawk, a badger which has been busy excavating a burrow right in the middle of the trail. There's also a bear, I know, in a heavily wooded side-drainage I've named "Spooky Hollow".

But days of prison-like isolation can make me question my sanity. Why do I do this summer after summer? Have I come to value this time too much? Have I come to love this airy space of kestrels and eagles and hawks too much? I have watched the birds all summer and know of their habits: how the kestrels hunt the noon air in groups of six, how the owls come silent and the color of moonlight to kill my friendly ground squirrels. Is it only here that my writing, my thinking, can achieve clarity? Words fall like predators on the page. Will I become, finally, one of them?

I think about all these things, too distracted to read or maybe write. I think about what we call creature comforts--running water, electricity, and know I don't need them. I'd live this way if it weren't for my husband, my teaching job. But then who would I be, some hermit with an old dog and a shotgun?

Then the afternoon wind begins to pick up. I watch as it blows the smoke to the east, then go out on the catwalk to take a reading. I think about how it would feel to become air, a thermal over the mountains.

I radio that the wind has shifted to the west/southwest and is blowing at 35 miles per hour. A half hour later and the smoke's cleared and I can see the big fire making a run into the dry timber near Deadman Point. I radio again.

Today that fire will take out another 5000 acres. It will blow up and send smoke and ash boiling into the sky like a nuclear bomb. I'll watch this country going up in smoke. It hurts to see. But I know, even as I feel the fire burning through me and the land, that this is the way it must be. The land must renew itself; so must I. The old forest must die for the new to live. I must teach the young that will come behind. Someday I too will become of smoke and ash. A painful lesson, this ecology of the natural, but one to gather strength from.

Firefighter Exchange thanks Jackie for her contribution. Her story was the first submission to this project.
Link to Jackie's web site.

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