Lookouts, dispatchers, and Unimogs

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High Country News has three articles that are worth checking out. Here are some excerpts. Click on the images to enlarge.

A big-ass fire engine, the Unimog

For nearly 40 years, Mercedes craftsmen in the German towns of Gaggenau and Worth am Rhein have lovingly turned out a series of trucks that are the Teutonic wunderkinds of the BLM’s firefighting fleet. The vehicles are called Unimogs, and they are some of the weirdest-looking machines to ever hit sagebrush country.

The Mogs are feisty, 15-and-a-half-ton, four-wheel-drive beasts that can plow their way through thick sage, squirt foam on a fire, and climb over just about anything in the Nevada desert. They have a central tire-inflation system that will keep their tires pumped full of air even if they’ve been punctured. The Mogs’ fully independent suspensions let them crawl through the most rugged terrain and cling to even the steepest hillsides — a phenomenon known in Mog-speak as “tweaking out.”

But the Unimog’s forte and most distinguishing characteristic is its ability to “cut” fireline with the two-ton plow blade mounted on its nose. By blading its way through sagebrush, a Mog can create a fireline across which a fire cannot burn and, eventually, corral the fire into an enclosure from which it cannot escape. The tactic is beautifully suited to the driest state in the nation, where water sources are few and far between.

“When you run out of water in a standard-issue engine, you’re done,” says Fettic. “When you run out of water in the Unimog, you can just put the blade down and keep fighting fire. You can just go and go and go.”

Who knew Jack Kerouac was a fire lookout? This article starts with him and moves on quickly to modern-day dispatchers.

In 1956, Jack Kerouac arrived at the summit of Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington. He would spend the next 63 days staffing a fire lookout there, alone in varying states of ecstasy and despair and near-crippling boredom, interspersed with moments of standing on his head and thinking the world had gone upside-down mad. Two years later — 50 years ago now — he recounted that time in The Dharma Bums. His breathless descriptions of himself writing haikus to rainbows in that aching high lonely helped launch the rucksack revolution, with the fire spotter at its vanguard.

Fifty summers as a lookout

Everywhere I go, everyone’s rubbing it in,” says Nancy Hood, after dispatching her weather observations by radio to Yreka, Calif. “It’s embarrassing,” the 70-year-old declares before biting into a bologna, cheese and peanut butter sandwich. Having lived atop four remote mountains in the Klamath National Forest for most of her life, Hood prefers a little privacy as she makes local history.

This is Hood’s 50th consecutive summer staffing a fire lookout in the steep, smoky Siskiyou Mountains. Over the course of her career, she’s stood guard amid nature’s stunning expressions — watching swollen clouds spit lightning and wind-driven wildfires run up canyons. Hood’s years in isolation have given her self-reliance and the heart of a poet. They’ve also left her with, well, a few peculiarities. She puts peanut butter on everything, even tuna fish sandwiches (“It helps keep everything together”) and her letters read like a logbook entry: “Got your card.”

Thanks to Dick for the tip.

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