USFS 1920

These days when you think fire-spotter, you probably imagine one of those birdcage houses up on stilts with windows on every wall.

When I started we had none of that. You watched from a peak, scanning the valleys for smoke and trying to recall where the lightning struck yesterday or the day before, marking the places on your map. Smoke in the mountains doesn’t look like smoke as much as little puffs of cloud that oughtn’t to be there.

My living quarters were nothing but a tent, and not a sterling example of even that humble domicile, patched and stitched and faded.

As for equipment, I carried an ax, a Barlow knife,  and a carborundum stone to sharpen both. There was a telephone, one of the hand-crank models with wires strung across the treetops down ten miles to the ranger station.

There were no smoke-jumpers, no radios. Just men and mules.


What Pegman Saw


This vignette borrows heavily from Norman Maclean’s USFS 1919: The Ranger, The Cook, And A Hole In The Sky. Maclean, who didn’t start writing until his seventies, achieved minor fame when the University of Chicago Press published his collection A River Runs Through It And Other Stories. Maclean mostly wrote autobiographically, though his non-fiction account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire was published after his death.  



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  1. k rawson

    Even the days of the ranger stationed in the fire tower has gone past. Great voice. I can just hear this old man. Love how his opinion comes subtly through.

  2. 4963andypop

    I agree the personality really shines through. So matter of fact, so courageous, when the mere mention of fire sends the rest of us running for the exits.

    How full of self-belief you must be, to stand amongst the tinder–whoops, timber–and fight such a soulless enemy, with even fewer tools than those we wield today, with equally alarming futility.

Don't just stand there.