Once I've spotted a fire, my superiors must choose a response. For most of the twentieth century the reaction was preordained: full suppression. A military mindset prevailed in the early Forest Service, and the results for America's public lands proved disastrous. Attacking every fire the moment it was spotted warped ecosystems that had burned on a regular basis for millennia; it convinced retreating urbanites that they could build their dream homes amid the forests with impunity. Smokejumpers would float out of the sky and save the day if the call came. The fact remains that wildfire has a mind of its own, as we've learned the hard way. The lessons will only get harder in a warming world, but here on the Gila, officials are committed to making fire a part of the life of the forest again. They let certain lightning-caused fires burn for weeks at a time, over tens of thousands of acres, making the Gila healthier than it would be otherwise: more diverse in the mosaic of its flora, more open in its ponderosa savannah, with less of the brushy ladder fuels that now make the American West an almost annual show of extreme fire behavior. With crews on the ground monitoring big blazes, we are their eyes in the sky, watching their weather when they sleep outdoors, letting them know when lightning is coming or the wind has changed. Such information, relayed in timely fashion, can mean the difference between life and death.
Still, there's little doubt I'm practicing a vocation in its twilight. Some in the Forest Service have predicted our impending obsolescence, due to more powerful radios, more sophisticated satellites, even drone airplanes - the never-ending dreams of the techno-fetishists. If there's one axiom of the world we've made for ourselves, it's that technology will always find ways to replace the inefficient human hand. But in a place like the Gila - where so much of the country remains off limits to vehicles and industrial logging - lookouts are sometimes the only link to the outside world for backcountry crews of all kinds: fire, trails, game and fish, law enforcement. We are also much cheaper than aerial surveillance. Safety and fiscal prudence - these will be the saving graces of the lookouts who manage to hang on.
Even for those of us who do, it's not difficult to imagine a future in which our most important task is to maintain a set of panoramic high-resolution cameras with live feeds to distant offices. Someday, no doubt, we'll be equipped with laptop computers and sophisticated mapping software with 3D graphics. Instead of learning the lay of the land the old-fashioned way, by walking its contours and staring at it for hours upon hours from above, we'll become on-site caretakers for an array of gadgets that render an intimate human knowledge of the country superfluous. Or so we'll be told. The lookouts of old, who not only kept watch over the forests but saddled their horses with tools at the ready to put out a smoke the moment it showed, will surely spin in their graves. As for the smokejumpers and hotshot crews who once relied on lookouts to know the condition of trails and the density of fuels in a specific locale, they'll have to discern what information they can from their handheld GPS units. For anything else, they'll be on their own.
Aldo Leopold, the man who drafted the plan to preserve the Gila Wilderness in 1922, a plan that made the headwaters of the Gila River the first piece of land in the world to be consciously protected from industrial machines, once wrote, "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?" Survey the Lower Forty-eight on a coast-to-coast flight, and the most interesting country never fails to be that without roads. Down there amid one of those fragments of our natural heritage is a forest that burns and a desert that dances, 20,000 square miles of cruel and magnificent country visible from a tower nearly two miles above sea. The view some days cannot be fathomed, so I turn back to the earth beneath my feet. Wild candytuft bloom under the pine and fir, followed later by wallflowers, paintbrush, mountain wood sorrel, Mexican silene. On my evening rambles I find stellar's jay and wild-turkey feathers, snake skins and mule-deer bones. Now and then an hour of hunting turns up a relic in the dirt, not far from the base of my tower: a turquoise bead or a Mogollon potsherd, white with black pattern, well more than eight hundred years old. I am given to understand these people once gathered in the high places and brought with them their crockery. They sacrificed their pots by smashing them to earth in hopes the sky gods granted rain. I am not alone in my communion here with sky. Far from it. The ravens and the vultures have me beat by two hundred feet, the Mogollons by most of a millennium. And who's to say the dust motes off the desert don't feel joy, if only for a moment, as they climb up into sky and ride the transport winds?
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