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Carl gets his first forest fire.

July 12, 2016


Knowledge about life in a fire lookout comes from our having served three summers at Indian Mountain Lookout in the Kaniksu National Forest in Northeastern Washington.  We gleaned information about the old days from the old timers at Priest Lake, and from digging around garbage pits and bushes on the mountain top, where we found boxes and boxes of old telephone batteries, bottles, cans, dinnerware, pots and pans.

Two weeks, three days later

Carl fell into a sort of routine despite his freedom from supervision, his solitude.  His duties were simple enough.  He was required to make a log book entry about six times a day.  Previous entries read mostly like this:  “0800 — reported no fires.”  He was also required to telephone his dispatcher back at the West Glacier Station periodically.  Other than maintaining the premises and keeping watch for forest fires, his time was his own.  His daytime routine included plenty of time for napping and reading.

Finally, after weeks of clear skies and cool weather, there was heavy cloud buildup.  Carl had long ago connected and tested the field telephone so he could speak with the dispatcher, Jackson Miller.  It was about 6:30 p.m.   A few drops of rain started to fall and Bud remembered suddenly that the rain gauge hadn’t been emptied since the last sprinkle when he got 0.12inches.  Bud raced out of the cabin, down the hill toward the gauge and as he tossed out the water, he heard a deafening, “SNAP — BOOM” “echo echo echo.”  A blinding flash came simultaneously.

Without thinking, Buddy flung down the guage and sprinted back up the hill to the safety of the lightning-protected cabin of the lookout.  When he got his breath he looked out toward the direction of the strike.

Still shaking with excitement, he saw a misty, broad cloud of blue smoke wafting over the crest of his hillside.  He stood on the special stool with glass insulated feet and grabbed the telephone receiver and cranked a handle:

“Fire flash. This is Huckleberry Mountain,” he said, following the script he got in training.

A voice on the other end answered, “Hi Carl,” go ahead and chase the smoke.  Wait — it might be just a cloud.  Have much moisture?”

“Jackson, just a couple drops of rain.  In fact I was….”

“Uh, stay where you are for now, Carl.  I’ll call you back in a few.”

‘He doesn’t believe me,’ Buddy thought.  He climbed up a ladder into the cupola, feeling glum.  He saw a distant flash of lightning. He counted the seconds. It was so far away he never did hear the thunder.

The phone in the cabin downstairs rang, so Buddy stepped onto the footstool and picked up the receiver.  “Huckleberry,” he said.

“Uh, go ahead and chase the smoke you saw,” a voice said.

“Okay, Jackson,” Bonde replied, and hung up.

Carl’s fire pack leaned against a log wall by his door.  He grabbed his hat and the pickaxe everyone called a pulaski, and headed down the mountain toward the smoke.  He was surprised at how close it was, only about 40 yards from the lookout.  There he saw a tree that had been split from crown to trunk, still standing, with fire licking outside the split.  Bits of burning material were scattered about the base of the tree.

He did as he was trained.  He sized up the fire to determine what to do first.  Since the embers and twigs were burning in the forest duff, Buddy started digging a line around that area around the tree, including all of the burning embers, before chopping at the embers and cooling them in the dirt until they were out.  Then he dug a trench with his pulaski to drop the burning snag.  He recalled a training film he saw where they described a snag like that as a “widow maker” should a heavy limb get shook loose by the person chopping at the base.lightning from lookout

As wet as the forest was this early in the season, he knew he didn’t need any reinforcement from other fire fighters.  He had assessed the overall danger.

Next, he took the precaution of knocking down the smaller trees near the burning snag, dragging them out of range of the snag he was about to fell.  After making the area ready, he notched the base of the snag on the side where he had dug the trench.  Then he cut out a second wedge opposite to, and higher than the first, in order to make a hinge to steer the tree.

The tree began to tip, but the butt of the snag hopped off its hinge and it fell crookedly into another tree that, in turn, came crashing down so close to Carl he had to run downhill.  Even then, he took a hard hit to his foot.

Fortunately, Buddy wasn’t trapped beneath the falling tree, but his foot had been struck with great force by its weight.  Hobbling a step, then crawling, he knew he was seriously injured.

Years later, after he joined the army, he found out he had broken his first metatarsal. Because the fracture had never been properly set, he had a deformed foot that almost disqualified him from military service because they thought at first he had flat feet.

Buddy knew enough first aid from what he learned in Boy Scouts to know not to remove his boot.  Instead, he re-laced it tighter so that it wouldn’t swell too much.  Carl hobbled with a crutch he made from a branch, then he cut a line through the duff down to mineral soil to prevent the fire from getting away, and carefully mopped up.  He put the whole thing out one ember at a time.  The snag was now lying across the ground, and he cut the fire away with his axe and the hoe end of his Pulaski. Then he chopped up the embers and mixed them with mineral soil until they had cooled enough that he could handle everything with his bare hands.  Bud knew not to leave the area until all was extinguished.  It was dark when he had finished, and he was getting cold.  His foot throbbed and hurt especially when he stood and gravity made his injury swell even more.

He faced a dilemma, but he also knew he needed to phone in to his dispatcher and report the fire extinguished.  Fortunately, he had 40 yards to hobble uphill to cabin.  After a few steps, though he had to drop to his hands and knees because of pain.  Still, it took him only about five minutes because it was close.

Once in the cabin he rang his dispatcher.  “It’s out, Jackson,” Carl said.  “I put out the fire.”

The next morning, Carl stayed in his lookout cabin, took aspirin, and started looking through the variety of books that others had left him:  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett; Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien;  Zane Grey — lots of Zane Grey. Then, Montana, High, wide and Handsome, by Joseph Kinsey Howard; The Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Great Gatsby. And a series of reports about the Big Burn of 1910.  Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Jules Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, by Bret Harte.

The next morning, even for a 17-year-old, Carl realized he was in a huge amount of trouble.  His foot was discolored and swollen so that it looked more gray than pink, with small red spots where he had bled beneath the skin.  He hadn’t realized that taking aspirin would only permit more bleeding and more swelling.

Took him like, twenty minutes, but he managed to change his underwear and pants and put his sock and boot back on his injured right foot.  He found a copy of Colliers magazine on the bookshelf and, using the bandage roll from his first aid kit, tied on a splint to help prevent his foot from flexing.  Once this was in place, Carl laid back on his cot and propped his throbbing foot on a pillow.  And he worried.  And thought.  A few minutes later, he remembered that he needed to check in with his dispatcher for his 8 a.m.

Took him a few painful moments to get to the phone, but he rang up the dispatcher.  It wasn’t Jackson this time, but another guy named Lloyd.  “Huckleberry Mountain,” Carl said.

“Roger,” said the voice on the other end.  “How’s the fire?”

“It’s out.” Carl answered.

“That’s not what I heard from Hornet Peak,” said Lloyd.

“That’s my smoky stove,” Carl answered quickly.

“Roger that.” said the voice.

“Bye,” said Carl.


Carl felt panic.  A hot place somewhere must have caught fire again down at the snag.  Grabbing his crutch, Carl hobbled back out his door and down the short distance to the wildfire place.  Didn’t hurt as much at all, as long as he didn’t hit his foot against any beargrass or stones or deadfall.  Sure enough.  There was considerable smoke coming from the snag itself, close to the root end where he had felled it.

Worse luck, he had forgotten to bring a tool.  Going up was more than twice as hard, he thought, but got back to his cabin.  Where was the pulaski?  He looked in the usual places, but the damn thing was gone.  Then he remembered that he had left it down at the fire after he had gotten hurt.

Another hobble had just the few painful moments when his right foot bumped into something.  He found his pulaski close to the far end of the snag, where he had left it to return to his lookout cabin.

Turns out putting out the fire in the snag was a lot tougher than he thought it was going to be.  He found it impossible to split the snag open without bucking it into some shorter lengths first.  And his foot hurt whenever he stood to work.  Took him more than two hours to split up the snag in order to scrape out the burning part, then cool the embers in dirt, chopping them finer and finer until the fire was out.  At last Bud could touch all parts of the burnt snag with his bare hands and could find nothing more afire.

This time he left his crutch below, leaning on the ax end of his pulaski as a cane to help him climb back to the lookout.  Bud was filthy, stinky, sweaty, tired, and very hungry and thirsty.  He took care of his thirst first, then laid down on his cot again.  He had to check in four times a day:  8 a.m., then 1, 5 and 8 p.m.  He kept track of the time on his government wristwatch, logged his check-ins in the government logbook.  He scrambled a half-dozen eggs mixed with an onion for lunch while he waited for time to report to the dispatcher for the 1 p.m. check.  He used a bit of his precious water to clean his pan and fork that he used to cook and eat the eggs, then used the same water to wash his filthy sooty hands.  He rinsed the pan and fork, then reserved the rinse water for the next washing.  Only he used some of it to clean his face.  This time the conversation with Lloyd was different.  Lloyd asked Carl to take an extra careful look at the countryside to make sure no more smokes had popped up from the previous night’s lightning storm.  Carl promised to do so.

Author’s note: Carl finished the season without any medical attention, thereby keeping his job, thereby ensuring his employment the following summer. He reported four more fires that first summer, six the next. Finally, in the winter quarter at the University of Montana in Missoula,

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