A New Mexico firewatcher describes watching his world burn

A plume of smoke rises from the Black Fire above the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico on June 4.
A plume of smoke rises from the Black Fire above the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico on June 4. Philip Connors | Philip Connors
Updated June 22, 2022 at 7:08 AM ET

When a wildfire forced Philip Connors to evacuate in a hurry a few weeks ago, he wasn’t just any fire evacuee. He works for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout, responsible for spotting wildfires early.

“The essence of the job is to stay awake and look out the window and alert the dispatch office at the first sign of smoke,” he explained.

His usual perch is a small room at the top of a 35-foot tower in a remote corner of the Gila National Forest, about a 5 mile hike from the nearest dirt road. It’s his home for about half the year.

But when the Black Fire crept too close, he packed up his belongings for a helicopter to ferry out, and hiked out with a colleague, his relief lookout who helped him pack.

“I’m not ashamed to admit I hugged a few trees before I left, some of my favorites,” Conners said. He described how the mix of trees changes depending on elevation, from a mix of conifers intermingled with aspen at the highest elevations, to a belt of ponderosa and oak, then pinyon pine and juniper.

A plume of smoke from the Black Fire rises over the Gila National Forest. Philip Connors watched the fire grow and creep closer to his fire lookout post.
A plume of smoke from the Black Fire rises over the Gila National Forest. Philip Connors watched the fire grow and creep closer to his fire lookout post. Philip Connors | Philip Connors

Connors, who is also a writer, deeply loves the forest he has watched over every summer for the past 20 years. But it was a different forest two decades ago, and will be even more changed once the flames die down.

At first, he thought of the lookout job as a paid writing retreat with good views. But over time he became a witness to the changes brought on by a warmer, drier climate.

“The place became my citadel and my solace. And it’s given me so much joy and beauty over the years,” he said. “Now it’s almost like the tables are turned, like it is in need of solace because big chunks of it are being transformed and going away.”

'The place became my citadel and my solace. And it's given me so much joy and beauty over the years,' Philip Connors said of his lookout high above the Gila National Forest.
“The place became my citadel and my solace. And it’s given me so much joy and beauty over the years,” Philip Connors said of his lookout high above the Gila National Forest. Philip Connors

He notices the signs everywhere. At the highest elevations, the oldest conifers used to be snowed in through late March. Now there’s less snow, and the soil is drier.

When he hiked up the mountain for the first time this spring to open the tower, “with every footstep I was sending up little puffs of powder from the soil,” he said. “I had never seen that this time of year.”

The Black Fire started on May 13, and Connors watched it grow into a megafire.

“It was kind of an exercise in psychic disturbance, to live in the presence of this thing that I felt certain would eventually force me to flee,” he said. “Even at night, you start dreaming about it because it’s just this presence lurking on your horizon. Then I would climb the tower after dark and have a look. Seven, 8, 9 miles of my northern horizon would be glowing with fire.”

After his regular lookout was evacuated, he was moved to another where the fire had already burned over.

Connors said the spruce, pine and fir forests at high elevations are vanishing from his part of the world.

“My arrival in this part of the world coincided very neatly with the onset of the worst megadrought we’ve seen in more than a thousand years,” he said.

The Gila Wilderness will never be the same for the Gila trout, salamanders, pocket gophers, tree frogs, elk, deer and black bears, or for Connors. But he’ll observe the burn scars and how the forest heals. He says his responsibility is to “see what it wants to become next.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We’ve been talking with a fire watcher. Philip Connors works in a watchtower in New Mexico.

PHILIP CONNORS: The essence of the job is to stay awake and look out the window and alert the dispatch office at the first sign of smoke.

INSKEEP: He’s seen a lot of smoke this year over the Gila National Forest. Connors is a writer and National Forest Service fire watcher. That makes him a witness to a fire that has burned more than 320,000 acres. When we called, it took us 20 hours to get through on his flip phone.

CONNORS: It seems to be the signal is affected by smoke somewhat and certainly by windy and stormy days.

INSKEEP: It was worth the wait to hear him tell what it’s like to watch his world burn. He stands in a little room atop a 35-foot tower.

What are you seeing right now?

CONNORS: Well, in the distance to my south, I’m seeing a little bit of smoke off the Black Fire, which is the largest fire this forest has ever seen. And in my foreground, I’m actually living inside that burn scar which burned a few weeks ago.

INSKEEP: It’s his second tower this season. He had to flee the first one when the flames got too close.

CONNORS: The fire started on May 13. I had a few weeks to kind of watch it grow. Every day I would sit and watch this very large megafire cross 200,000 acres, then 250,000 acres. Yeah. It was kind of an exercise in psychic disturbance to live in the presence of this thing that I felt certain would eventually force me to flee. You know, even at night, you start dreaming about it ’cause it’s just this presence lurking on your horizon. I would climb the tower after dark and have a look. And seven, eight, nine miles of my northern horizon would be glowing with fire. So I had the time to pack up all my essential belongings. And then myself and my relief lookout, who was there at the same time – we hiked out together. And, yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit I hugged a few trees before I left – some of my favorites.

INSKEEP: What is this forest like in the parts that are not burned?

CONNORS: Well, in a way, it’s many forests, depending on its elevation. The highest elevations, around 10,000 feet above sea level and above, have historically been mixed conifer – spruce and pine and fir intermingled with aspen. Below that, there there’s a kind of ponderosa pine and oak belt.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).

CONNORS: Oh, there goes my radio. I’m going to turn that down.

INSKEEP: That’s OK. If you’ve got to take a call, take a call.

CONNORS: No, I don’t have to take that call. That’s just me eavesdropping on everybody else who’s talking in the forest.

INSKEEP: Are you hearing anything of interest?

CONNORS: This morning, it’s mostly people just going in service and telling dispatch where they’re going to be so they can be tracked. And things will really start to swing into gear here in the next hour.

INSKEEP: Go on.

CONNORS: So, yeah, what’s happening in the highest elevations – the mixed conifer, typically burned in stand replacement fires that burned a few hundred or a few thousand acres – now we’re seeing it going away in much, much bigger chunks. And so that forest is sort of vanishing from this part of the world.

INSKEEP: You’re answering one of the questions that was on my mind. You’re telling me that fire is part of the normal life cycle of the forest, but that things are changing over the 20 years that you’ve been watching this forest.

CONNORS: Yeah, that’s true. My arrival in this part of the world coincided very neatly with the onset of the worst megadrought we have seen in more than a thousand years, according to scientists who study tree rings. So what had been a relatively stable climate in this part of the world – for several hundred years, at least – started to change. It’s just so dry. When I showed up for my first day of work in late March and hiked up to my tower at 10,000 feet, I noticed big, old, green, still-living trees that had just toppled over at the root. Their roots didn’t have the tensile strength to grip the earth anymore because they had no moisture in them.

INSKEEP: So that explains why so much can burn now.

CONNORS: Yeah. Even at the highest elevations, the biggest, oldest trees that once upon a time were snowed in in late March – they’re tinder. I was digging for moisture in the holes created by the root balls of those tipped-over trees. And I couldn’t find any in the soil. In fact, I could snap off the root tendrils and use them as kindling in my woodstove. As I was hiking up the trail that first time to go open the tower, I just noticed that with every footstep, I was sending up little puffs of powder from the soil. And I had never seen that that time of year.

INSKEEP: I can tell listening to you, this isn’t just a job for you, is it?

CONNORS: No, not after 20 years. In the beginning, I thought of it as a sort of paid writing retreat with good views…

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CONNORS: …Which, indeed, it is. But, you know, over time, I really did fall in love with the place and all its creaturely life, from the salamanders, pocket gophers and tree frogs to the elk, deer and black bears. The place became sort of my citadel and my solace. And now it’s almost like the tables are turned. It is in need of solace because big chunks of it are being transformed and going away. And I feel a deep sense of responsibility to hang in with it and observe the scars of the burn and how they heal and see what it wants to become next.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Connors, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

CONNORS: Thank you, Steve. I enjoyed it.

INSKEEP: Philip Connors is a writer and National Forest Service fire watcher in New Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARISA ANDERSON’S “WAKING”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.