My Life As a Fire Lookout
Trina Moyles looked at the job description for a fire tower lookout job in northern Canada’s Boreal forest and lingered for a moment on this line: Only highly self-motivated individuals can overcome the loneliness and often monotonous routines of the lookout observer’s way of life.
That’s me, she thought. And she clicked send on the application.
What followed is the subject of her new book, Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest. It’s Moyles’ memoir of summers way up in her lookout, alone, save for the crackle of the voices on the radio, the occasional visits from helicopter teams, and, of course, her dog Holly.
The book traces her journey from humanitarian work in Uganda, to an isolated stretch of sub-Arctic forest, while giving an exhilarating dose of lightning storms, and a somber look at how climate change is causing chaos in northern climes.
Below is an excerpt provided by Moyles.
A storm was brewing to the southwest of my tower, but my expectations for wildfires were low. The intensity of lightning in late August was minute in comparison with the violent storms of June and July. But this storm had conviction. The cloud doubled and kept rolling towards me, so I closed up the cupola windows.
The winds churned and I heard the violent whirring of the anemometer. The cupola began to rattle back and forth atop the tower. The storm was going to come right overhead, I realized. The trees flattened and my laundry, hung on a clothesline below, went flying in every direction, a tempest of colourful socks, underwear, and T-shirts. Holly slunk beneath the cabin porch as the storm drew nearer.
Rain lashed the windows and the eye of the storm seized the tower. My water bottle went crashing off the Fire Finder onto the floor as the cupola shook. The sky began to hurl hail, the white ice ricocheting off the windows like gunfire. I jumped on the radio to report the weather shift.
“26, THIS IS 567 WITH A WEATHER UPDATE!”
I couldn’t even hear the dispatcher above the hail, but the radio snapped, so I kept on.
“I’M GETTING HAIL—ALPHA ONE-ONE! WINDS ARE MORE THAN NINETY KILOMETRES!”
Grape-sized hail pelted against the windows. I put down the radio.
“HOLY SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!” I screamed into the abyss of the storm.
Minutes later, the storm had pushed off to the east and the rain relaxed to a drizzle. The ground sparkled like white granite and hail piled up against the yellow cabin. I cringed to witness the devastation of my garden: My peas, flattened. The lettuce and kale tattered. Holly emerged from beneath the porch. She looked around, shook out her damp fur, and sniffed at the hail.
A colony of ghosts proliferated in the distance, spooky grey columns of moisture rising from the forest. No smokes. Suddenly, I spied a stab of white light—dry lightning! The cloud opened up and the rain formed a solid curtain of blue. I looked away then glanced back, and there it was: a column of white smoke, pushed low to the treetops with the surging winds. Why did it always feel like a small miracle—seeing smoke? A kind of magic trick: now you see it, now you don’t.
I radioed in the smoke location, though the smoke quickly disappeared, doused by rain.
“No smoke in sight,” said a crew leader. “But we’re seeing a lot of spooks out here.”
“It was definitely not a spook,” I replied, although not over the radio. “XMA567, this is Yankee Whisky Bravo on 202.”
I reached for my mic. “Go for 567.”
“Good afternoon, we’re just coming up on your detection,” said the crew leader. “We’re not seeing anything. What was your bearing on the smoke? We’ll fly the bearing from your tower.”
I passed along my bearing and detection and watched them through my binoculars, the helicopter a black fly circling the location of the phantom smoke. I was confident I’d seen a wildfire and figured it must be hidden, barely burning somewhere below the treeline.
“We’ve had a good look around, but nothing found,” said the crew leader to the dispatcher.
Away they flew. My heart sank.
“It was a smoke,” I said to nobody.
Stubbornly, I kept watching the blue plateau over the western horizon. Maybe my distance had been off, I thought. Maybe it was farther than I thought across the flat stretch of forest. I stayed vigilant.
Suddenly, a column of white popped back up. I grabbed the radio to inform dispatch and listened to my westerly neighbour call in a cross-shot on the smoke. I scribbled down his bearing, then went to the cross-shot map to pull the sewing thread from his tower to mine, fixing their intersection with a tack. Aha! A precise location of the smoke. My distance had been off by ten kilometres, but what did it matter? They would now see the smoke rising out of the forest.
“Confirmed wildfire,” said the crew leader. “What’s the next fire number, please?”
It was a small fire, only 0.2 hectares, and burning a path towards a meandering creek. It wouldn’t take the crew long to get it under control. I watched the smouldering drama through my binoculars and felt an odd sense of ownership. Finally, I thought, I’d trusted my gut. I hadn’t backed off my judgment or doubted what I thought to be true, even when the crew came up empty-handed. I’d kept watch, patiently, willing the wildfire to the surface with my eyes.
What was it about being the first to observe nature in action? Witnessing what the forest had done for millennia? It made me feel small and insignificant, and yet also like a quiet hero. I was proud to be a small part of the collective effort to spot the beginnings of wildfire, joining the legacy of the women and men who watched before me. It was lonely and thank- less work, and in the moment of reporting a smoke there was no one with whom I could share the glory—no one but myself. The smoke would fade into nothingness, the wildfire into a black scar on the landscape that few would ever fly over. Yet I’d never forget this moment.
Looking out across the blue plateau of forest and sky, my chest ached. I felt the possibility of open space, a canvas for imagining a future in which I could be at peace with myself—and even let go.
Words by Trina Moyles