An inside look at the fire camp set up at the Gila County Fairgrounds where firefighters stayed while they fought the Pinal Fire near Globe in May and June 2017. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Edward Abbey needed a day job.
Writing novels didn’t pay well, so the aspiring author took part-time work with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout, a seasonal worker who scanned the horizon for smoke or other signs of a wildfire.
Over the years, Abbey worked at the Grand Canyon and at Aztec Peak, in the Sierra Anchas southeast of Payson. He also worked at Atascosa Lookout in southern Arizona, a tower that burned down in the 2011 Murphy Complex Fire, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
The protagonist in his novel “Black Sun” was a man who worked as a fire lookout.
Presumably, Abbey is the fire lookout known as “Abner” in Stephen J. Pyne’s “Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter’s Long Season at Grand Canyon.” Pyne, who worked 15 seasons on North Rim fire crews, changed the names in his story, but one suspects that Abner is Abbey, because as Pyne wrapped up the book, he noted that Abner would acquire a “national reputation as a writer of novels and nature essays.”
Pyne wrote that the lookout towers had reached a “state of disrepair,” and were not relied on by the firefighters as part of their strategy to combat fire.
“The reason is Abner, the last known person hired as a regular lookout. Early in 1970 he sighted the Desert View dump burning, and he became a momentary champion. … But it was the last smoke he ever reported; fire busts came and went with hardly a word from North Rim tower.
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“Whether Abner was even in the tower, no one could say. He was a writer, and the only smokes he reported were the ones in his novels. He lived in a trailer behind the entrance cabin, but he was absent so often that he demonstrated that we did not need a lookout, because having Abner in the tower was the same as having no one. The position was abolished.”
Fire lookouts are still used by the Forest Service and Park Service, though their numbers are decreasing.
According to Abbey’s journal entries, written in 1970, from the North Rim Tower, his wife, Judy, was dying of cancer, which may explain some of his purported absences. On July 4, he wrote of her death, his grief, thoughts of life and death.
In “The Journey Home,” Abbey wrote about working as a fire lookout at Glacier National Park: “We are being paid a generous wage (about $3.25 an hour) to stay awake for at least eight hours a day. Some people might think that sounds like a pretty easy job. And they’re right, it is an easy job, for some people. But not for all.”
Fire lookouts spend a long time in isolation, which is not for everyone. Abbey said he “cheated” by taking his wife along.
“But that can be risky too; many a good marriage has been shattered on the rock of isolation,” he wrote.
From high perch, sentry keeps wary eyes for fires
From atop their silent perches, fire lookouts stand guard
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