When my wife Stephanie kindly wrote the About Me section of mojavemorning.com, she mentioned my former life as a Forest Service fire lookout. And she was right to include that in the bio, because doing that work more than anything got me energized about photography in a deeply felt, lasting, and almost transcendent way.
Here are some snapshots from those days about a decade ago, when I was working with a compact camera and slowly relearning the craft of photography. Unfortunately, Vetter Mountain Fire Lookout burned to the ground in the massive Station fire in 2009 (I was not on duty at the time). The sadness and irony are not lost on me.
This is the fire lookout. The structure was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and it was administered by the US Forest Service. Because of the ecology and geography of Vetter Mountain, it was one of the few fire lookouts that could be placed on the ground instead of on a tower. From here a person could see about a quarter of the 1,000 square mile Angeles National Forest, from the 10,000 foot high Mount Baldy to the famous Mount Wilson Observatory where astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered the "red shift", proving we live in only one galaxy among millions in a rapidly expanding universe.
In the lookout with my trusty dog Cooper. Cooper was crazy about the forest. It might be hard to see, but at the bottom of the stool in this picture, the legs end in glass insulators. All chairs in the lookout had these… in a lightning storm, the lookout was often the first thing to be struck by lightning. So when I felt the hair standing up on my neck, I got onto one of these chairs in a hurry. There was one harrowing lightning storm I recall in particular, with each bolt of lighting not polite enough to wait until the previous one had finished shattering the air.
After a lightning storm there was often smoke, and with spotting smoke came the use of this thing. This is the "Osborne fire finder", a neat old antique that still performed its indispensable function. I used it to determine the bearing and distance of any smoke I spotted to accurately radio its location in to the firefighters. Fire lookouts were trained in map reading and orienteering skills, and we had to learn intimately the geography of the forest. We frequently logged weather readings, so we learned about the weather and how to use the weather reading instruments; frequent readings become crucial to firefighters when a fire breaks out. Of course we learned about fire science and since the lookout was open to the public (hikers and mountain bikers would visit on the weekends), we had to be forest docents as well. So we learned about the flora and fauna of the forest, and its history.
Speaking of fauna, we had it. Not just rattlesnakes, but brown bears, deer, marmots, coyotes, mountain lions, little squirrels, birds… lots of lovely animals.
I was really happy. Perhaps I’m not smiling in this picture because I was trying to look official or something. I’m still happy now, but the forest has to continue on without the lookout. It's sad to lose unique old gems like Vetter.