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Originally published Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Fire Season': life in a New Mexico watchtower, looking for wildfires

Philip Connors' engaging "Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout" is a memoir of his years in a watchtower on New Mexico's Apache Peak, monitoring the Gila National Forest for wildfires. Connors will discuss his book Monday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Philip Connors

The author of "Fire Season" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

'Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout'

by Philip Connors

Ecco, 246 pp., $24.99

Before Philip Connors became a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on New Mexico's Apache Peak (elevation 10,010 feet), he bagged groceries, fried doughnuts, painted houses, tended bar and held many other jobs before winding up at The Wall Street Journal as a copy editor. Well-read and schooled in journalism, he wrote little but rode herd on grammar, spelling and punctuation for three years, taking pleasure in work whose "success was measured by how rarely people noticed what I did."

Years later, after eight summers in a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed 7x7-foot glass house atop a 55-foot tower monitoring the Gila National Forest for fires, he observes, "The essentials of my current line of work — anonymity, discretion, watchfulness — are not so different from those demanded of a copy editor ... " Instead of a busy newsroom, Connors had only his dog and the occasional hiker for company. No need to dress for success or suffer a traffic-clogged commute. From April to August he spent 10 days at his remote post, then took four days off if a relief lookout was available.

In his engaging new memoir, "Fire Season," Connors describes not minding having traded a view of Jersey City from Lower Manhattan for southern New Mexico's thunderstorms, wildlife and wildflowers, for hours of sitting and staring "into the inscrutable heart of the desert" waiting "for the sight of that first twist of smoke."

Ninety percent of American lookout posts have been decommissioned, Connors writes. But on the Gila, 10 lookouts remain open, because the arid Southwest receives 30,000 lightning strikes annually. Only the Gulf Coast of Florida surpasses this "most fire-prone landscape in America" for density of lightning strikes, and there, storms usually produce heavy rain. On Connors' watch, the average seasonal count has been 200 wildfires.

Many are benign surface fires. But others spread to thousands of acres due to a long-term policy of complete fire suppression, which has allowed dangerous amounts of brush, duff and other fuels to accumulate. Connors explains the crucial contribution of small, sporadic fires to forest health, and discusses the Forest Service's current use of fires to restore ecosystem functions and preserve biodiversity. This reversal of government fire protocol, and of changing the public's general belief in Smokey Bear's message that all fires are bad, he shows, has taken a long time.

His book, then, sends thoughtful word from deep in the wilderness. There, where supplies still arrive by backpack or mule, and where Connors cuts firewood by ax and handsaw, is also where bombers drop both fire retardants and water, and helicopters, hotshots and smoke jumpers are summoned to combat man-made blazes or those threatening homes or towns.

Watching provides ample time for contemplation. Connors' interests include Aldo Leopold's seminal role in local and national land ethics, famous writers who worked as lookouts — Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey — Indian wars, restoring native fish, effects of eradicating large predators such as bears and mountain lions, the consequences of logging and renting forests for cattle grazing, and more. Connors welcomes readers to his beloved high place, generously sharing its expansive view.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner now writes and lives in New Mexico.

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