Read of the week: A Fire Lookout in 2009

My read of the week came to me on Saturday when I decided, at the very last minute, to keep my copy of “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009” instead of donating it to the Friends of the Tompkins Count Library book sale.

The first essay I opened to after rescuing this book from the ten-cent-a-bag day (who knows, it may have found a wonderful new owner on premium-priced opening day) was “Diary of a Fire Lookout,” originally published in The Paris Review in 2008.

It’s a great look into the annual summer fire season in one New Mexico wilderness. It’s also a bit of a time capsule, describing the summer of 2007, when the two main topics of the piece — solitude and wildfires — were different than they are now.

In the diary entry format essay, Philip Connors describes daily life in “the best job in the world,” as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. From April to August or so, Connors lives alone (with his dog Alice) in a tiny cabin and spends most of every day in a tower on a 10,000 foot peak, watching for fires.

Philip Connors describes daily life in “the best job in the world,” as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. From April to August or so, Connors lives alone (with his dog Alice) in a tiny cabin and spends most of every day in a tower on a 10,000 foot peak, watching for fires.

The Chihuahuan Desert, the Black Range, the Mimbres River, the Diablos Mountains, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. He names landmarks in the three million acre forest like old friends. As the summer progresses, more names arise as puffs of smoke, (“snags” he calls them) mature into fires: the Mineral Fire, the Palomas Fire. The Lake, the Granite, the Jackass.

When Connors spots smoke, he radios the other lookouts – only ten of them, where there once were hundreds. A cross-reference of the smoke spot gives an exact location of the fire. Not to attack the fire, I learned, but to monitor. Connors is in favor of letting fires burn, especially in the unpopulated wilderness areas, letting nature run its course.

Connors values the view and feels a responsibility over the land. “A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order,” he writes, “and my responsibility if it burns.”

He also values the solitude, feeling cramped by even the occasional thru-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail.

“To live in the wild for four or five months a year, to be paid for the privilege of watching mountains all day. To escape, for a while, the ugliness of the world we have made for ourselves, into the world we were given.”

Reading this account in summer 2007 now, at the end of summer 2021, leads me to ask: What difference does 14 years make in this world?

Solitude has lost currency, I think. And wildfires have gained power.

“A modest proposal for fire in the gila:” he writes. “when it’s in the wilderness, let it burn, and monitor it only with wilderness tools.” He suggests revolutionizing the structure of fire fighting by using fewer fire fighters and more fire walkers: people to walk the perimeter of the fire.

It’s a nice thought, but would it work now? This year’s fires encroach not only on population centers but on the country’s oldest, largest sequoia trees. Let nature run its course – at what cost?

The piece ends with the author intervening in nature’s course when he takes in an abandoned fawn he found by chance on a hike. It’s heartbreaking as he finds himself violating his own ideals.

Reading this essay about wilderness in 2007 only makes me want to learn more. Are there still fire lookouts posted around the Gila? Are they only equipped with radios? Or do they rely on wifi – or even social media – to do their jobs and ward off solitude?

What will happen if we let nature run its course, as earth becomes drier and more populated? What is beyond our ability to save?

And how much worse have wildfires in the American west become in just 14 years?

Leave a Comment