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September wild fire

“September 12: Before the smoke settled. View from the lookout a few days ago and hours before natural sunset.”

In the Land of Heat and Smoke

The view from a fire tower in Northern California

Text and photos by Charlotte Gross ’12

When I saw the dark plume building northwest of the fire tower, I knew it signaled a shift. It was August in Northern California. I was on duty as the lookout on Wolf Mountain, waiting for the tinderbox landscape, dried by months of summer heat, to ignite. None of the few-acre starts I’d seen had matched my expectations of what fire season would look like in a county just southeast of where the infamous 2018 Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise. 

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I watched the smoke with my binoculars. This was the blowup of the North Complex Fire, which would eventually burn hundreds of thousands of acres in Plumas National Forest. It was beyond my jurisdiction as Wolf Mountain’s lookout, so I didn’t need to report it. If I could see it from more than 30 miles away, crews must already be on the ground. I turned up the radio to hear if there was chatter. 

“Highway 80 at Secret Town. Washington Ridge Crew 4, Engine 2363,
Water Tender 37, Battalion 2313. Standby for check back.”

For the rest of the day, the northwest smoke dominated the sky, the landscape, and my attention. It glowered purple-orange, spreading in a cap overhead. Even the turkey vultures seemed to feel it. They flew low, not circling my tower as usual. As the wind rose, I wondered if it was a bad idea to be perched where I was, alone. Was the fire near enough that, if it blew up more, it could block my escape? 

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As the Wolf Mountain lookout, I was following a years-long fascination with wildland fire. From a young age, I’d watched relatives in western states live with fire, and its paradoxical beauty and danger had captured my attention. If I had known 2020 would be the most extreme fire season ever recorded in California, I might not have driven more than 3,000 miles from my home in New Hampshire — during a global pandemic, no less — to work as a lookout in a Cal Fire tower. But amid the year’s chaos, I wanted to be in a quiet, still place to work on my writing. I’m glad I didn’t know I’d face weeks of choking smoke and fears of evacuation warnings. 

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It’s true that fires are destructive. It’s also true that they’re a necessary ecological disturbance. Fire brings life. Species that have occupied western North America far longer than we have rely on it. But the language we use to describe wildland fire frames it as the enemy: crews confront raging fires with air attacks and battalions of firefighters. Because humans have changed Earth’s climate, enabled forest overgrowth by suppressing fire for the past century, and built our homes closer and closer to the wildland, fires threaten entire ecosystems like never before. 

Back East, that threat didn’t feel real. Environmental studies courses in college sparked my fascination, and I wrote and drew a graphic novel about a lookout for my undergraduate thesis. But the deeper I dug into my research, the more apparent it was that reading couldn’t bring me close to the flames. That’s why, last summer, I found myself climbing the metal stairs of the Wolf Mountain tower with a notebook in my backpack, ready to scan for smoke with binoculars, pinpoint it with an Osborne Firefinder, and write about what I saw. 

Fire towers are the realm of macho men. In writing from a lookout, I followed a tradition of white, male authors: Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Doug Peacock. Though I saw a handful of women in the fire crews and at the dispatch station, the other lookouts I interacted with were mostly retired male firefighters and military veterans. To their credit, they treated me as one of their own. That I had crossed the country in my hatchback to watch over their turf didn’t bother them. They never made me feel I was invading their space. The only moments when they treated me differently — protectively — were when I’d arrive for our shift changes. They would shut the tower gates tightly behind them to discourage anyone from climbing the steps to join me.

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“You’re part of this tower’s history,” one of them told me. Another showed me newspaper clippings that documented the local towers’ origins nearly a century ago. An AP article from 1970 announced “California’s first ‘Women’s Liberation’ fire lookout crew” — of two — that had preceded me. I found one of the women’s names scrawled on the tower’s steel plank where past lookouts had left their mark. I wrote my name next to hers.

On Wolf Mountain, the days were usually clear — blue and green rather than the threatening orange-purple of the day the North Complex’s plume dominated the sky. I spent hours training my binoculars on the western horizon, taking in the mountains that scraped the flat bottoms of cumulus clouds. Most days, it was the honey scent of felled logs, rather than smoke, that rose in the heat. But anything could look like smoke in the evening when the sun hung low. Bare patches between trees. The glittering lake. A distant white roof. If I stared at the ponderosas too long, then shifted my gaze, their shape followed, resembling the greasy cloud of a vehicle fire over the ridge. 

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When I locked the tower’s gate behind me after a shift in November, I didn’t know it was my final day as a lookout. That night, the battalion chief announced that rain had wetted the landscape enough to lift the summer burn bans. The fire season was over. My work soon shifted to ski patrolling.

Now, months later, I don’t know if I’ll ever return to a fire tower. But on Wolf Mountain, I found the stillness I needed, and distance from others at a time when distance meant safety. I learned to read the landscape of my new home. I learned to read the vultures, their pinions like fingers stretched to grab the sky. I learned to cast my imagination out to soar with them.

Besides watching for fires from a Sierra Nevada lookout, Charlotte Gross ’12 is a Nordic ski patroller and writing instructor. She has a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth and an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire. She was a 2020 fiction finalist in the Narrative Magazine 30 Below Contest, and her work has appeared in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Hopper