Book review: ‘Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout,’ by Philip Connors
Special to the Daily
There is no greater moment of dread for those living in the arid West than that instant when a thin tendril of smoke is spotted on the hillside. Fire can be both destroyer and nurturer, but when property and lives are threatened, all the potential benefits of a good burn are forgotten. Author Philip Connors found an opportunity to reconnect with the notion that fire has a valuable place in the natural world and, therefore, in the world of man.
In his book “Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout,” Connors documents the journey into self-awareness he experiences as a lone fire scout on a remote mountain in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. The book, a recipient of the National Outdoor Book Award, follows Connors as he navigates both the minutiae of fire maintenance, as well as the bigger picture of the control and mitigation of fire throughout the history of the American West.
At its heart, though, Connors pens a deeply personal homage to the natural world, using his substantial gift for prose to paint a reverent tribute to the wild world and the beauty of being alone in it. On a whim, he volunteers to do a friend a favor, taking over the position of temporary substitute fire lookout, and he settles into his short stint with few expectations, but it doesn’t take long for him to become hooked, and soon he is returning year after year, eager to move into his rustic cabin below his lonely tower on a lone peak in the vast Gila Wilderness area.
The job of a fire lookout is quickly becoming archaic and is being replaced by changing technologies, but budget restrictions have helped keep the practice in place for now. During the early years of the Forest Service’s existence, manned fire towers were deemed vital in the mission to suppress every fire that began in the forests of the West. Total suppression was viewed as the only forest-management practice acceptable, and decades later, by the time it was determined to be a bad approach, the horse had left the proverbial barn.
Now, as a result, forests are in ill health, many of them overgrown and diseased, with human habitation encroaching too densely in areas that could benefit from the new methodology of prescribed burns. But, of course, controlled burns don’t always go like clockwork; the nature of fire is inherently unpredictable. Convincing the public that fires can be beneficial is an ongoing challenge, says Connors. “It’s hard to win a friend for fire when you burn down his house with it.” Plenty of prescribed burns get out of control, one example being the 2000 fire that threatened the town and lab complexes of Los Alamos.
Fires, we now know, keep forests healthy and diverse and prevent beetle infestation epidemics such as the ones plaguing the Rocky Mountains today. Realization has mounted that burns need to happen, even unpopular ones, before the forests sink into even worse conditions, especially with the added pressures of climate change. In modern terms, how fire crews respond to a fire is partly determined by whether the fire is caused naturally — by lightning — or whether it is caused by human hands.
For the majority of Connors’ documented stay in his fire tower, lightning strikes account for most of the smoke he reports to his superiors. Of course, between the instances of summer storms with fire-starting potential, the most significant portion of his time is spent staring out over a quiet vista, with many hours for contemplation and exploration with his beloved dog, Alice. Like former fire lookouts Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey, Connors is a professional writer, a profession which pairs well with the patience and introspection needed by someone who may spend months alone far away from civilization.
It is his account of these hours of calm between the flames that is the most fascinating to the reader, for it speaks to the dreamer and poet within each of us. Each season, after months away, Connors finds it challenging to sink back into the silence and the solitude, though he loves it once he is submerged again into the wilderness. The rest of the year, he bartends, playing sympathetic ear to downward spiraling souls. The contrast, those transition points, he says, are the exciting instances in life.
He finds his life richer for having embraced all the corners of his being — the melancholic and lonely as well as the contemplative and imaginative. “Fire Season” is deeply moving and surprisingly gripping, given that much of the content is akin to staring into a campfire — an experience, Connors insists, that brought him closer to his humanness and to the ancients who once did the same.
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