FIRES! – December 2015


By Jan Steinbright



            Dawn summoned me outside to take a look. I was confronted with a strong smell of smoke. I looked up toward the “v” in the hills at the head of our small arroyo. A large red cloud hovered above it returning my fears of yesterday when the wildfire had swept across the opposite side of the hill taking with it many meters of land, threatening small ranches and farms. We had watched the smoke’s march as it progressed in the strong, westerly winds, fearing the flames might jump the hill and climb down the slopes to our homes on the lake’s shore. Our neighbor was positioned atop his roof with binoculars; we had been returning to the patio at regular intervals checking. Other than that, no one in the neighborhood seemed concerned.

            Finally, it was too much for me; I hopped into my Jeep and drove around to the other side of the hill to see the activity more closely. I expected the road to be closed or at least see many spectators off the side of the road watching, but no. I was the only one, me and my dog who immediately looked to the hills knowing something was amiss. Where were the concerned, or at least, interested humans? Where were the bomberos, the firemen with their water packs on their backs? Where were the Guadalajara backups we heard had been called? Where was the concern for the small ranches in the path of the fire, now surging up in red flames whenever it hit new fuel, then heading on toward new conquests?

            The scorched path of flames had encompassed a barren corn field leaving only the bare dirt and the farmer’s white bags of mulched corn feed alone. He was scurrying around the field checking damage and then headed for his home adjacent to the field to spray water around it. The fire moved higher on the hill, but was spitting large flames into the air as it continued its journey east. The wind and a pile of dumped auto tires fueled its fury. On my way home, I passed the big headquarters of the bomberos. No activity at all. This is evidently the usual course of things during the dry season in Mexico, let it burn. Who cares? The milpas need to be burned off.

            Memories took me back to the summer of 1960 and a fire lookout tower atop a mountain in the Chehalis district of Washington State. It was the summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college and my brother, a forester, had secured a lookout’s job for me for three months. My home was a fourteen square foot room up three flights of stairs on a watch tower with an uninterrupted view of central western Washington including, on clear days, vistas of mountains, Baker, Rainier, Adams and pre-erupted Mt St. Helens, culminating with Mt Hood across the border into Oregon.

            In the center of the lookout cabin, was an old generation fire finder, a circular metal device with a map of the region showing townships, ranges and sections. Down the center, was a wire directional piece with a sighter at the end. When I spotted smoke, I aimed it and calculated the distance from the lookout to where the smoke was located. I called the calculations into headquarters and they sent a fire crew out to suppress the fire.

Most times I was very accurate, but often the local dump at Napavine would throw me for a loop when it was set afire. The smoke traveled a great distance in the erratic winds making it seem as though its origins were different each time. It became a joke at headquarters, “Jan is calling in the Napavine dump again.”

            On days of zero visibility, being socked in by fog or clouds, I was allowed to leave the lookout, go down the mountain for food and water or wander the countryside with my rescued-from-the- pound dog, Doty. After one trip up the three flights of stairs to the catwalk of the lookout, Doty decided she would rather live at ground level and she eventually joined a local pack of wild coyotes leaving me with only my rabbit, Thumper, who made merry tracks around the fourteen square feet of cabin on his daily exercise route.

            The lookout provided peace and tranquility unlike any I had known or have known since; days on end hearing no one talk except fuzzy voices over the State Department of Forestry radio. There were books to read, (many books to read) in between sketching, carving and absorbing the beautiful landscape, watching deer, coyotes, rabbits and squirrels wander across the logging cuts; eagles and hawks soaring in the skies above. Being a recluse agreed with me.

            This tranquility was broken only by the occasional fire or visitor. One day, I called in a fire very close to the lookout, to the north. I was told it was on Weyerhauser land, not State land. I went back to the tasks at hand, but was soon interrupted by a truck roaring up the 7-mile road to the lookout.

            “Permission to come up” was yelled.

            “Who are you?” I asked.

            “We are Weyerhauser and need to use your station to monitor the fire.” I quickly caged Thumper, straightened up my bed and allowed access. Two men climbed the stairs, took over the fire-finder, and my radio and with binoculars began reporting in.

            This was fine with me until they got hungry and thirsty. After a 12-hour internment, they had eaten a lot of my provisions and drank up all of my water and coffee. Access to these was not easy. I hauled the water from a nearby creek and filtered it. The food had to be driven up by friends or relatives or by me, if I had to have permission to leave my post for a day. Needless to say, the large logging company of Weyerhaeuser was not on my favorites list after that, even though my father made a good portion of his living from selling truck parts to their fleet.

            Another unexpected visitor was a Mister Bert Hoffmann of Germany and later Canada. One day I heard a voice on the ground saying, “Got a cup of coffee for an old woodsman?”

            “Sure, I answered, come on up.” Bert came into the cabin and that began a good summer friendship, one that taught me a great many things about trees. Bert had escaped Germany during the war, made his way to Canada and had been employed in the mines and later in forestry as a tree surveyor, counter and evaluator.

            “All our trees in Germany have been counted and cataloged long ago,” he told me. “There, we know every tree we own. It’s very different here in Canada and the States. You don’t have any idea of your holdings. My job is to figure that out.”

            “How do you do that?” I asked. He told me about the calculating methods, showed me a drill with a hollow core for burrowing into trees and then a recent wood drilling core he had taken out.

            “See here, if you count the rings, you can tell the age of the tree; observe the variances between the rings and you can tell what has happened in its life. Right here was a forest fire, see the very dark ring? And here was a drought. Other spaces show you it was a good growth year for the tree, lots of rains and favorable weather conditions.” Bert made it a habit to stop in at CH12, my lookout, for a cup of java and good conversation whenever he was surveying in the neighborhood. He was a welcome diversion.

            Other visitors were not so welcome. One night, I heard motorcycles roaring up the road accompanied by shouting. I peered out the window and saw a group of youth obviously drinking while driving their bikes thinking they would scare the lady lookout. The only gun I had with me was my father’s 30-30 which I could barely shoot and hated because of the kick it gave. But, when in doubt . . . I went out on the catwalk and shot off a few rounds, bruising my shoulder badly. I guess the roustabouts knew I wasn’t a very good shot, dangerous at that. They turned their bikes around and headed back down the mountain. I later learned they had put their bikes on their sides and slid them under the locked forestry gate at the bottom of the road.

           Other unwelcome visitors were a swarm of termites that came in a black cloud one morning, climbing all over the windows, obliterating my view. I called down to headquarters, CH1, and told them I had zero visibility and I would call back in when it was cleared. The winged denizens stayed the entire day, mating on the windows and the catwalk, and then the males died off leaving a mess to be swept up. The females flew off fertile and happy. I couldn’t help but think of that in later years when I saw Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. I had had that same feeling of entrapment and fear of the unknown animal behavior.

            Another visitor scared me in the middle of the night. I had heard a woman crying in the woods a few nights before and had gone outside to look down, but saw nothing. Again, a week later, the crying commenced. I called down to headquarters and told them “I think there is a woman in the woods and I am going down to investigate.”

            The night radio monitor, who was half asleep said, “Jan, there are no women wandering around the woods. You probably just heard an animal. And he condescendingly said, “Goodnight.”

            That wasn’t good enough for me so I took my big flash light and went down the three flights to the ground. I walked toward the woods, calling, “Is anyone there?” I walked further into the brush and saw two yellow eyes in a tree shining in the flash light’s rays. Then there was a “thump” onto the ground. I have never run so fast, taking the lookout’s stairs three at a time to the top. I put down the hatch cover to prevent entrance to the catwalk and hovered against the side of the cabin.

Out of the woods strode a large cat, a cougar, grey and white with yellow eyes gleaming in the moonlight. I remained very still, shaken by the experience, but very still. It came to the bottom of the stairs, climbed a few, but then thought better of the adventure, turned around and headed back into the woods. I was later told by headquarters that cougars sound like women screaming and I’d better not be going out into the woods again in the dark.

            On free days, I wandered down to the creek, stripped my grubby clothes off and washed them and me. The water was mountain-fed and very cold, but so refreshing. I built a small pool to retain the creek’s flow and languished in it until I could no longer stand the chill. Then I’d return to the lookout and hang my clothes to dry. Life felt so good and so natural.

            In the evenings after signing off on the radio, I went down to a special stump, an overlook to watch the sky turn black. I had seen signs of coyotes in that area. The next time my mother came up to visit with a load of food, I asked her to leave her cigarettes (her brand, filtered Kents at that time) so I could feed the coyotes and perhaps get a better view of them. I removed the filters and made a pile of tobacco on top of the stump. Sure enough, the next evening, the tobacco was gone. This became a regular feeding site and I was soon able to watch these wily creatures up closer.

            On another visit, mother brought my former boyfriend from high school. I had him cut an alder tree and haul it up onto the catwalk for me. The only carving tools I had were a knife and an old metal lathe gouge, but I was bound and determined to carve a totem pole. I had just finished a book about the indigenous carvers of the Northwest Coast. It turned out to be carved in very shallow relief with faces of friends and family, but a totem it was. It forecasted things to come, as I ended up living among and working with Northwest Coast artists for many years in Alaska.

            The nearest town to the lookout was a small burg called Doty. Most of the people there were either farmers or loggers retired from hard work in the woods and often crippled or disabled due to that. Company medical insurance seemed non-existent. On a few days off from the lookout, I got to know some local residents and began to realize how important hunting deer was to their survival. Some could no longer work and provide for their families so those all-important stashes of venison got them through the winters. As a state employee, I was to watch out for poachers on state land. But when I could identify the poachers as an in-need Doty resident, I seemed to turn my back to their hunting.

            It was the others I went after with a vengeance, the bow hunters, especially ones who were not competent enough to make a kill, but let their prey wander around for days with arrows in their bodies until they bled to death. These, I reported to Fish and Game in a hurry.

            My other Doty acquaintances were a Swiss goat herder and his grandson. The grandson walked the 7 miles up the mountain once a week to deliver me goat cheese and fresh milk. I have a fond memory the following fall of my mother sitting with the grandfather at the Chehalis State fair back behind his stalls full of goats, talking live stock. She also had raised cows, sheep and goats, but one at a time as she worked full time in real estate.

            The monitoring of fires in the summer is no longer accomplished with people in towers on the tops of mountains. Today the equipment is automated and very sophisticated requiring little or no human intervention. Gone are the days of being paid to live a reclusive three to four months high in the sky surrounded by nature’s beauty.

            The summer of 1960 was a special gem given to me full of great memories. It was also that fall I made my first trip to Mexico to attend school, planting the seed of a desire for the life I am experiencing now here at Lakeside.



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