Looking Out by Brian Baxter

I miss my Lookout already, and it’s only been one rotation of the sun. This strikes me as kind of funny. As right now, I do not miss rising in the early hours, or the intense visual grids that are consistently done to make sure I am doing my job. But there is honor in doing the job well, and it brings satisfaction to one’s self when they have done a good job. The lightning strikes of recent that connected with the earth, trees, and very dry fuels of this summer, did ignite some small fires. However, they were immediately jumped on by our local fire fighting professionals and controlled. I’m on a break now.


Up in the Crow’s Nest. Photo Credit: Brian Baxter

Up in the Crow’s Nest, there are three main levels of activity. Observation, patrol, and communications is the first. Sentinel’s all along the watch towers are supplied with lightning strike maps, or radio relay of coordinates and keep a close eye on these strikes and continue their normal observational routine. At level two, in addition to level one, there may be active fires that have to be closely watched. Spotters may be needed to assist aerial drops, relay communications, and are always watching out for the backs of our fire teams. Level three, is a combination of one and two, with additional multiple fires occurring surrounding the 360 degree visual of the observation tower. This level is where it sometimes feels as though all hell is breaking loose. This is when one must work efficiently, transmit accurate fire locations, and keep as cool and calm as possible. Because there’s a lot going on. There is a multitude of radio traffic. Fire Lookouts must know when to allow priority communications to take precedence. Lives are in danger. Veteran’s of war say this stage is one of the closest things to actual combat. Oh, and level four is where the Lookout’s life is in danger and they must leave or be evacuated.

Lookout’s life is in danger. Photo Credit: Brian Baxter

On a lighter note, there are times when the Lookout has time to look within. In many Native Cultures across the North American continent, there is a unifying spiritual element that’s been utilized throughout history to gather wisdom and healing to the people. It is called the Medicine Wheel. This multi-dimensional framework of reference may take many forms, but is generally depicted as a circle divided into four quadrants that each represent a specified direction. Usually the directions are set up similar to a compass, as far as quadrants, and include North, East, South, and West. All of the directions carry deep meaning, far beyond the physical navigation of the world all around us. The directions symbolize specific components of the inner landscape that we all possess, and every respective direction holds gifts that may be used to better understand ourselves.

As stated in the Four Directions Prayer, and The Sacred Science (N. Polizzi), East, the direction of the sunrise, represents the birth of new things, the spring, the fire of life, and is associated with matters of the soul. This is often represented by the color yellow, and the Eagle. South represents youth, sweetness, and the water element. It is most often associated with our emotions and the season of summer. This is often represented by the color red, and the Wolf. West, the direction of the sunset, represents adulthood, reaping the harvest of hard work, the earth and stones, and entering the dark “cave” of hibernation and creativity. It is associated with our physical body and the season of autumn. This is often represented by the color black, and the Brown Bear. North is the direction of the ancestors and the wisdom of our elders, both alive and deceased, and the realm of the great return to Spirit. We look to the north for inner healing and insight from those who have walked before us. It is associated with our mind and the season of winter. North is often represented by the color white, and the White Buffalo.


So folks, it’s cool to do some serious thinking as you scan the four directions from the tower. Just this season so far, as I’ve been running my usual visual grids for smokes, I incidentally spotted Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, various hawks, a Moose cow and calf, Western tanagers, Rocky Mountain bluebirds, and a young Grizzly bear. And this season could go on for awhile. But it is of the utmost importance to realize that one might have to get into high gear and remain eagle-eyed, tune in the binoculars to a smoke, operate the Osborne Fire-Finder, and accurately report the location of a serious fire.

Elephant Peak with snow. Photo Credit: Brian Baxter

Because things can change at the speed of lightning. This was emphasized into my head, heart, and soul in 1994, after I had been working fire as an aerial observer in fixed winged aircraft, a leader of heli-tack crews, and then assigned to dispatch up at the Upper Ford camp in the Yaak.

Brian Baxter heading out as aerial observer/helitack mission. Photo Credit: Brian Baxter

Here is a summary of an excerpt from a Forest Service report, on fire behavior associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. Lightning ignited the fire on the afternoon of July 2, 1994. On July 6, the fire continued to burn down-slope through surface fuels. At approximately 3:20 p.m., a dry cold front passed over the area. Winds were estimated to be from the south at 30-45 m.p.h.. About 3:55 p.m., several up-slope fire runs occurred in grass and conifers. As this fire spread out, fuel, slope, and wind conditions combined to result in sustained fire spread through the live green gambel oak canopy. Steep slopes and strong west winds triggered frequent up-slope fire runs toward the top of the ridge. These up-slope runs spread at six to nine feet per second (450 ft. per minute up hill). A short time later the fire overran and killed 14 firefighters. Their names were: Kathy Beck, Tami Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, James Thrash, and Richard Tyler. None of us that fought fire that year were ever the same.

The Osborne Fire Finder Photo Credit:
Brian Baxter