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Smoke Signals

In 20 years as a forest fire lookout, one learns how to cope with isolation

Author Britany Robinson Illustration Marc Rosenthal

dispatches2MONTANA – It’s 6 a.m., and Leif Haugen is wide awake, gazing out a window at a broad expanse of trees. He will keep doing this for the rest of the day, as he does every day—though he allows that his mind will occasionally wander. “It’s amazing how much time you can spend looking at the clouds.”

Haugen, a bearded, soft-spoken 44-year-old, is a fire lookout, a duty he performs in a tiny white cabin perched on a 7,000-foot peak in Montana’s Flathead National Forest. During fire season, which stretches across the summer months, he also calls the cabin home.

He sits at a small desk that’s cluttered with notebooks, a novel, an empty coffee mug. He’s mainly looking for faraway wisps of smoke, which he will call in via radio. He may make 20 such sightings this season, or he may make none at all. “You’ve got to appreciate the slow times,” he says.

Forest Service fire lookouts have been around since the early 1900s. (Jack Kerouac took a turn at the job in the mid-’50s.) There were once 600 towers dotting the wilds of Montana; today there are 130, only 40 of them staffed. A plane or a satellite can cover a lot more ground than a guy sitting at a table sipping endless cups of black coffee.

At 10 o’clock, four hours into his day, Haugen’s radio crackles to life—other lookouts doing their morning check-ins. He’s been doing this job for two decades, and it no longer fazes him that these may be the last voices he’ll hear today. “New lookouts think they’re going to read 20 books or learn to cross-stitch,” he says. “They’re always surprised by how much time they spend just sitting."


One Response to “Smoke Signals”

  1. Laura Read Says:
    September 8th, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Nice to read! I like getting this insight into the behind-the-scenes world.

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