If I were posting strategically, I wouldn’t be telling you this right now. I’ve got a book coming out in three months! That’s supposed to be my focus! But I can’t help sharing the fabulous time I’ve had this week in southern New Mexico (and anyway, this blog is about more than promotion, right?).
On Tuesday I hiked the trail to Signal Peak tower, one of ten fire lookout towers in the Gila National Forest. (You might remember I sold a verse novel set in the Gila that comes out two years from now. Up until this point I’ve relied on books and videos and pictures to write this book. It was time to go and explore.) I’d been in touch with the forest manager, and he’d told me the tower wouldn’t be occupied yet, but I was free to hike up and look around.
Guess what? The lookout, Jim, and his adorable dog, Smoke, had come to the tower eight days before! I got a tour and a personal guide who could answer my questions. It was incredible.
Here’s the Osborne Firefinder, which is set in the middle of the 12′ x 12′ cab. (I asked Jim if the cab — the working and sometimes living area at the top of the tower — was the typical 12′ x 12′ size. He wasn’t sure, so he measured it for me.)
The Firefinder was invented in 1911 and hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. It’s the primary tool used in fire detection. First, a lookout finds the “smoke” through the brass sighting then lines it up with the crosshairs. The lookout then takes the azimuth reading from the edge of the Firefinder (the angular distance from north) and uses the map on the Firefinder (the tower is at its center) to locate the smoke with the measuring tape strung across its middle. Jim’s tape is missing, so after finding the azimuth, he uses this drop-down string map to locate the smoke.
All towers have a map like this of the surrounding area. Signal Peak is “nearby” other towers (also marked), such as Hillsboro, Bear Wallow, and Mogollon Baldy. To get a precise reading, Jim calls another tower to see if they can site the smoke, too. Using the strings, he determines where the azimuths cross. It’s called triangulation and is a very accurate way to locate a smoke.
I’ve placed my imaginary tower on an imaginary mountain I’m calling Wolf, which is pretty much Mogollon Baldy. That means my character, Opal, interacts with some of these same towers. How cool is that?! I asked if it would be okay if I change my Signal Peak lookout’s name to Jim. It was the least I could do as a thanks for his kindness. He seemed pleased with that.
Jim told me his cab is the fancy kind. These cabinets were custom made. That’s Smoke’s water bowl to the left.
Something incredibly cool for me was to hear Philip Connors over the radio. His book, FIRE SEASON, is what pointed me to the Gila for my imaginary fire tower.
There is no electricity at the towers. Everything is gas powered. (Though I see a plug? Don’t ask me to explain.) At Jim’s location, he is able to get internet. He’s also able to drive to his tower. Most towers have spotty or no internet and require lookouts to hike in.
I’ve got three people living in my tower, so I’m going to need to rethink the placement of some things. The table has gotta go, for example, unless I can have a fold-up mechanism? I could also make my cab bigger than the standard. I’ve read that some are 15′ x 15′.
In 2014, the Signal Fire raged close enough to the tower the lookout had to flee, using the trail to get away. Just to show you how close to the tower the fire came, I took this picture maybe one hundred feet from its base.
I learned so much during my time in the Gila. My trek to Signal Peak was the absolute highlight of my trip. Now I’ll add new bits and pieces to my manuscript and send it back to my editor by the middle of the month.
PS — Can you see Smoke on the catwalk?
This is a fantastic post!!! Thank you for sharing.
Thank you. It was so wonderfully fun and satisfying.
Steve Cromwell says
Just that adventure of exploring the tower and having it all explained would be a great picture book. I mean, the guy has a dog named Smoke! Imagine what he can smell from up there.
Love the look of the old brass on the Firefinder. And Jim has the same portable radio as I do, but he’s got a bigger view.
So yeah, what a research blessing that was! Now all you have to do is find a way to work azimuth into a poem.
I’m planning to work Smoke in, too. How could I resist? And while azimuth isn’t a very poetic word, it makes it into several poems and becomes a metaphor, too.
Kimberley Little says
The stories and pictures are terrific! What a great research trip! I adore those research trips, they make for very special, life-long memories!
Makes me think of your bayou exploring. <3
I love this! Makes me even more excited to read it… in two years! So glad you shared some behind the scenes work/adventure.
This is so great to read and know changes can still be made after we’ve discovered something “new” in our research that will make the story all the better.