Book Review – Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

93419094 stars. Philip Connors details one year of his eight spent as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico in Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, penning a literate and enjoyable volume on nature, life, history, and philosophy that could only come from someone with a love for solitude and lots of time for reflection. Hiking 8 miles each way to his tower, Connors was stationed from April to August to watch for puffs of smoke. Once smoke was spotted, he coordinated with other lookouts and fire response crews as the fire was suppressed, contained, or allowed to burn.

The main focus of the book is solitude–its effect on him and how he dealt with it. His pleasure at simply enjoying his environment and the companionship of his dog Alice is obvious. His descriptions of the sights that he sees–trees, rivers, mountain ranges, animals–are all evocative without being overly flowery. If you get the idea that there’s not a lot of action in this book, you’re right; read it for the author’s eye and command of phrasing rather than expecting a thrill-a-minute pageturner.

Central to Connors’ writing is an exploration of man’s relationship to land. He gives a good account of how our understanding of nature has evolved from a policy of total suppression of fire to realization that fire is part of the natural course of renewal.

The weakest parts of the book for me were several long passages discussing other writers who have been fire lookouts such as Norman Maclean and Edward Abbey. There’s a lot of hero worship for Jack Kerouac that I found a bit tedious. I wanted to hear Connors’ voice, not the lengthy quotes from other authors!

I particularly enjoyed his recounting of the history of the area, especially that of Apache chief Victorio and his 1879-80 campaign to keep freedom for his people. That story is equal parts noble and heartbreaking.

It’s rare that I enjoy a book about not much happening as much as I did with Philip Connors’ Fire Season. A thoughtful, enjoyable read that I recommend for lovers of mountains and nature.

Book Review – Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters

3.5 stars. Parachuting into a forest fire, controlling its furious and unpredictable flames, and packing out of rugged terrain carrying well in excess of 100 pounds pretty much fulfills the definition of “badass” in anyone’s book. Jason Ramos recounts his 20+ year career as a smokejumper, combining his memoirs with a concise history of firefighting and lucid discussions of the problems facing wilderness firefighters today.

As with many memoirs by the elites of dangerous professions, there’s a humility and “all in a day’s work” understatement of risk to Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters. The smokejumpers are men who have no need to brag; their accomplishments stand on their own merits with no embellishment necessary. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and not feel a sense of awe at these brave firefighters.

Smokejumper is easily readable, with direct prose. While the narrative tends to be pretty jumpy–moving from Ramos’ part in a fire to discussions of firefighting equipment to the history of the deadliest fires–it maintains a natural feel, like a long chat over some beers (and don’t even think of not picking up the tab, he deserves a beer and then some!). I would have liked a little more personal stories of Mr. Ramos; he almost casually mentions his role in fighting fires as an afterthought when I get the feeling he could have written much more about his role, and I did not feel as emotionally bound to the story as its contents would have allowed.

I also appreciated his reflection on the firefighting profession and man’s role with nature. Esoteric details of forest management, firefighting tactics, and the behavior of fires are presented very clearly; Ramos is a natural explainer.

As man encroaches more upon wilderness, the topic of forest fires becomes more and more relevant. Smokejumper is a readable, enjoyable look at the problems posed by wildfires, and the brave men and women who risk their lives to control them.