With a pending epic fire season in store due to remarkably dry conditions in the western United States, the release of this behind-the-scenes look at the role of these human sensors in the battle against forest fires is timely. Philip Connors spent eight seasons as a lookout on Apache Peak in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, recounting in these pages the events of one season. The book details the life at the peak, recounts the U.S. Forest Service’s evolving strategy of fighting wildfires, and weaves in literary antecedents that also pursued this life of solitude and reflection.
Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Outlook
ISBN: 978-0061859366 2011 256 pages
Review by Matt Ball
Connors preceded his life at the peak with a stint in New York City as an editor at the Wall Street Journal. There he saw first-hand the destruction of the World Trade Center, and realized his need for a closer connection to nature, having grown up on a farm.
The author takes his role as lookout very seriously, studying the landscape closely over the years, and working to quickly identify fire starts using the Osborne Firefinder to pinpoint smoke locations, along with the knowledge he gleaned from walking the wilderness. He relates the camaraderie that is shared by fellow lookouts as well as the good-natured competition to spot a fire first, and to pinpoint its location correctly.
The job of fire lookout has been romanticized for decades, and has been undertaken by a series of writers, including Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder. Connors evokes the perspectives of these writers, with a particular focus on the experience of Jack Kerouac, going to far as to transcribe the notebook that he kept during his four-month stint of fire watchin. There are excerpts in the book from other nature writers, such as Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir, who each had ideas on nature conservation and wilderness management.
Connors has developed a finely tuned understanding of the wilderness that he watches, that is backed up by his own research into the deep history of the land and how the wilderness came to be preserved. He recounts the early debates at the U.S. Forest Service about land conservation efforts and fire suppression tactics, sharing how the strategies and goals evolved over time. He also details how the Gila Wilderness was created in 1924 by an assistant district forester in New Mexico and Arizona by the name of Aldo Leopold, who drew a line on the map encompassing four mountain ranges and the headwaters of the Gila River, a line beyond which nothing motorized or mechanized would be allowed to travel.
In his discussions of forest fire strategy, he speaks from a forest of authority as, “Just about any way you look at it, the Gila can justifiably call itself the epcicenter of American wildfire.” The fact that the Gila has been central to the effort to bring fire back to the landscape, provides an important observation point for the way fires are managed and the effects that large blazes have had on the landscape. Instead of smothering every fire the moment it is detected, there is now a balanced approach that takes into account the conditions and origin of the fires.
This book does a nice job of putting the reader on the fireline. It is both an important work on the management of fire and wilderness, as well as a reflection on man’s relationship to nature. As things heat up this Summer, you’ll be happy to have gained this first-person perspective of landscape and fire.