Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Review of "Fire Season" [35]

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors
Ecco, ISBN 978-0061859366
 April 5, 2011, 256 pages

What sort of person can, in fact wants, to spend weeks all alone, cut off from all people, in one of the last true wildernesses in the US? Well, author Philip Connor is one such person, one of the rare breed of men and women who man the fire towers in some of the most remote parts of the country, in his case, in New Mexico's Gila National Forest.

For about 5 months every year for the last decade, the fire season of late spring and summer, Connor, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, leaves his wife Martha behind in town, drives his pickup to the trail head and then hikes the more than 5 miles to the tower that will be his home and workplace for two weeks at a time, then hiking out again for his four days off. It is a time of almost total solitude, except for his dog Alice, the occasional hiker who passes through, and his daily check-ins on the radio with headquarters as he scans the miles and miles of wilderness for any tiny sighting of smoke that will signal the beginning of a fire.
But all that time alone gives Connor a lot of time to think and a lot of time to write in his journal, and his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects over one season is what we are presented with in this book.

He writes a fair bit about the history of the National Forest system and Gila in particular, especially the role of Aldo Leopold, a Forest service ranger turned conservationist. It was Leopold who was instrumental in convincing the Forest Service to attempt to keep any roads from being built into the forest, to keep them as truly wild as possible.
Perhaps the most interesting subject that he discusses at some length is the Forest Service and National Park Services changing ideas over time of the role of fire in the parks. At one time, every fire was seen as the enemy to be fought and suppressed but has changed in recent decades to viewing fire as a natural force that must be allowed, whenever not a danger to humans or property, to take a natural course. In fact, Connor makes a good case that it is only by often letting these fires burn that the natural state of the forest can be maintained. An interesting subject and one I assume not one everyone involved in these matters agrees with.

Along with our history and natural science lessons, we are also entertained with a number of stories about his and Alice's daily experience, some funny, some a bit scary and some, like a misguided attempt to interfere with helping a baby animal, rather sad. What do they say..Nature in the wild is seldom mild.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I did have an issue or two. A couple of maps would have been nice to help the reader really get a better idea of the scope of Gila and the relationship of some of these places he talks about and some idea of the distances involved. I like a few visual aids, but overall Fire Season is an interesting read, a book nature lovers will enjoy, anyone concerned about the National Park and National Forest will learn a good deal from and a book that may make anyone who has watched those wild fires burning thousand and thousand of acres on TV see fire in a new light.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book to review.


  1. This sounds interesting, but I agree, maps are great for this kind of book. I love New Mexico too - maybe I should look into this one!

  2. At first I was thinking he could get a lot of reading done while he was out in his tower, but I guess he has to keep a watch out for smoke. Are those towers like little apartments?

  3. I think I'd go bonkers after a week of this.


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