Fire season is a lonely season  for Forest Service workers like Tom Nordeen, who spends several days at a time in one of three remote fire lookouts in the 800,000 acre St. Joe National Forest. The 23-year-veteran employee spotted two fires. One was accessible by road. Smokejumpers from Missoula dropped in to fight the other blaze.

The air up there
Ranger district staffs lookouts

Photos and text by
Ralph Bartholdt

      You can smell it up here.
      Until today the wind kept the smoke tucked into the valleys, draws and creek bottoms. But, the smoky veil from several fires in the St. Joe Ranger District and the Clearwater National Forest has crept quietly 6,500 feet over the mountains like murky tidewaters and the odor of charred and burning wood is prevalent along the river at Avery.
       The smoke impedes the vision of 56-year-old Tom Nordeen, who for several days has manned the fire tower at Middle Sister Peak, about ten air miles southeast of Avery.
       He's been glassing the surrounding area with binoculars, watching the heat and smoke rise and settle depending on the wind, and the time of day. From his aerie atop the Middle Sister Lookout, he has relayed messages from dispatchers in Coeur d'Alene and the Avery Ranger Station to firefighters in the field for four days. Make that three days.
       "You kind of lose track of time," the 23-year St. Joe District veteran said.
       Before he volunteered for the job as the spotter on Middle Sister, Mr. Nordeen was at the Huckleberry Lookout for a couple of days, and before that, when the lightning storm passed through almost two weeks ago igniting several fires, he was on the Surveyor's Ridge Lookout.
       Moving northwest at the head of 25 mph gusts, the storm blackened the night before bolts crackled from the sky at about 9 p.m.
       The lightning is blamed for at least 22 fires in the district in the last two weeks. Lightning struck the Surveyor Ridge lookout several times, when Mr. Nordeen was there. Its charges grounded in the rock beneath the tower.
       You usually hear a click and a boom," Mr. Nordeen said.
       He didn't sleep very good, he said, because his job in the lookout requires he plot locations of lightning strikes using an Osborne Fire Finder, a sighting device that sets on a counsel in the middle of the lookout shack.
       There were many strikes that night.
       As an extra precaution this summer, the St. Joe district has placed rangers in three of its lookouts in addition to using an airborne spotter twice a day.
       Since reporting to Middle Sister, Mr. Nordeen located a fire to the east near Junction Peak. A local crew was dropped in and the fire has since been contained.
       Several other fires, though, puffed up and Mr. Nordeen has busied himself today relaying information to two groups of smoke jumpers on separate fires -- at My Creek and another at Joker Peak - and back to dispatchers.
       Reports chatter on the hand-held radio that is always nearby.
       "Last night the radio didn't quiet down until after 10," Mr. Nordeen says. "It woke me up at four this morning."
       Outside in the shade on the western rail of the lookout, yellowjackets have been feeding on a hatch of red ants. The wasps buzz against the glass.
     The radio chatters.
     "Middle Sister lookout, this is Coeur d'Alene dispatch."
     Unshaven, wearing a floppy hat, Mr. Nordeen reaches for the radio and holds it close to his mouth.
     "Can you contact the incident commander at My Creek?" A voice on the radio asks.
There are instructions.
     Mr. Nordeen turns and faces southeast. Out there, far beyond what is visible through the shroud of smoke, a group of four Missoula jumpers, their job finished, wait for a helicopter to drop a net they will load with their gear. The helicopter will hoist it and the jumpers will pack eight miles on foot to Red Ives.
     "My Creek jumpers this is Middle Sister," Mr. Nordeen says slowly into the radio.


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