THE GREAT FIRE OF 1910, ALSO KNOWN AS THE BIG BLOWUP, burned 3,000,000 acres (12,000km) [This is roughly equal to the entire land mass of Connecticut.] through the states of Washington, Idaho, and Montana.It was during that Big Blowup that legendary forester and wildland firefighter Ed Pulaski saved 40 out of 45 men by forcing them to take cover in an abandoned mine. With the fire approaching he threatened to shoot any man who attempted to flee, knowing they would only perish in their attempt. He would later go on to invent the “Pulaski.” It is still arguably the largest forest fire ever in recorded history, and did much to inspire the fire rules, organizations, and policies that we have today. One of the rules as a result of the 1910 fire stated, “all fires must be extinguished by 10:00 AM the following morning.”
Suppression. The last century of firefighting will be noted for its suppression. Fires snuffed out in their infancy, pyro-infanticide. The destruction from fire is unsightly—charred moonscapes do not attract your typical tent-toting weekender, and the cost to property can be astronomical. In the worst-case scenarios these incendiary tsunamis can cause serious injury and death.
The truth is that fire is completely terrifying.
Fearing fire is one of the first lessons we learn, when early on we carelessly taunt whipping flames, at best ending up screaming in pain. Lesson learned. Despite our fears, wildfires are necessary; they cleanse the understory of our forests and help foster healthy and vibrant ecosystems. In places where the policy of suppression has been most effective forests have filled with dead trees and overgrown understory. This creates a succession of ladder fuels that allow ground fires to easily climb into the fuel-laden canopy. This is fertile ground for an uncontrollable inferno known as a firestorm. [In the movie Firestorm, former NFL All-Pro defensive end Howie Long—fresh off a supporting role in the nuclear-terrorism-aviation-heist-thriller Broken Arrow—plays Jesse Graves, a long time smokejumper pitted against a group of escaped convicts hellbent on gaining their freedom. The convicts, in staging their escape, start an uncontrollable wildfire that threatens to destroy them all. This film currently has a 12% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes.] These fires rage with such fury and heat that they create their own weather system: massive Dyson-inspiring convection sucks oxygen to the fire, feeding the towering flames. Firestorms burn at an intensity that incinerates everything in the vicinity, even scorching life hidden underground and leaving the afflicted areas barren for years. Ultimately, the policy of suppression has proven to be the wrong approach to environmental management. It was an honorable attempt, at least in part, to preserve nature’s splendor while helping to inspire a nation of increasingly environmentally-conscious citizens.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the Forest Service’s policy of fire suppression required massive resources devoted to monitoring the far reaches of our nations forests. Before drones, cell phones, GPS, helicopters, airplanes and automobiles, a system of lookout towers was put in place to help identify new forest fires. These remote and precarious domiciles dotted the far recesses of our nation’s forests; they were frontline citadels in the fight against forest fires—think of a Great Wall of China where the opponent is a giant wall of fire instead of the Mongol horde. Backwoods townships and remote rural settlers relied on the lookouts to help stop the blaze before it became a threat. Tower residents used carrier pigeons, telegraphs, and heliographs [A heliograph is a wireless solar telegraph that signals by flashes of sunlight—generally using Morse code—reflected by a mirror.] to send news of any new spark.
The advent of modern measuring systems has seen to a slow decline in the use of manned fire lookout towers. It is this disuse that makes them special. Without the duty of scanning for the apocalypse, visitors are free to take full advantage of the towers fundamental feature: their mind-numbingly stupendous views. True, not all fire look out towers have a great view, but if you end up planning a trip to a fire tower without one you have more important things to worry about. Windows were maximized during construction, and the good ones have enough room to cook, sleep, and play card games with a few friends. Mostly though, you spend your time gazing. Standing on spindly legs high above an ocean of trees, shuddering in the wind, the clock with its restless hands fades, time becomes diffuse. The nature of time changes, its measurement becomes the inconsistent creaks of the building, the whistling of a forest bird, the groaning of branches. Our need to measure things is lost in the endless horizon of our surroundings.
As much an exclamation as a remote and desirable escapist location, fire lookout towers are the true tree forts, now made available for societal escapism. Time is suspended, on hold until we climb down again. Look out.