After 21 years on the job, Ken Struck isn't about to get outsmarted by a water dog.
"Some of those water dogs, they'll trick you if you're not careful," he says. "But if you watch them a little, you'll see the difference between a water dog and a smoke."
Job title: Fire lookout
Job description: Scanning the horizon for wildfires
Salary: Started out at minimum wage, now up to $10 an hour
Education: Oregon Technical Institute, associate's degree in gunsmithing.
How long at the job: 21 years
If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? "This is it. I can't think of anything I would enjoy more."
A water dog is mist rising out of a forest following a summer shower. A smoke is a telltale wisp rising from a smoldering tree that has been struck by lightning.
You can tell the latter by the way it sits in the trees, he explains.
"Some of those lightning strikes will lay over for days," he says. "Then they start to smolder. That's when you see a little trickle of smoke."
Since summer 1987, Struck has been the fire lookout atop Soda Mountain in the Cascade Mountains a dozen miles east of Ashland.
Struck, now 73, was already a veteran firefighter at the time. He had just retired as a captain with the Medford Fire Department, where he had served for 25 years.
"After being a firefighter for that long, it was nice to do something where you can get a jump on fires, get them stomped out before they get very big," he observes. "Our job is to spot them early."
Struck typically begins his fire lookout job in mid-June on top of the mountain rising to 6,091 feet above sea level. The fire season in the region usually ends in mid-October.
However, he has been posted on his mountaintop retreat in early May and stayed on the job until November.
His wife, Colleen, often joins him for a day or two, bringing him food and other supplies.
"I'll spend the weekend up there with him," she says. "I enjoy it but I'm not a person who can just sit still. I've got to be doing something.
"We have horses," she adds of their Sams Valley residence. "I'd rather be out riding our horses."
But her husband enjoys his summer job so much that in 2007 he stayed on Soda Mountain for the entire fire season.
"I never came down at all last summer — not once," he says. "It's an interesting job. A lot of people think it would be boring. But things are always happening. You get visitors."
And no office has a better view, he'll tell you. There is Mount Shasta looming to the south and the rims of Crater Lake to the northeast.
"Sometimes, when those clouds start rolling in from the coast, you feel like you are looking at the ocean," he says. "You get really pretty views at night. You can watch the stars falling and the satellites going over."
When a fire isn't brewing, he often spends time watching wildlife, from hummingbirds to bears. He has also seen cougar and elk from the lookout.
His goal is to spend more than 22 seasons in the lookout, beating a record by a female fire lookout back in the early part of the 20th century.
Built in 1933, the lookout is one of seven the Oregon Department of Forestry maintains in Jackson and Josephine counties. It is in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
Like most fire lookouts, Struck often spends the days scanning the forests far and near for signs of smoke. He pinpoints the location of a smoke with a firefinder, a device using a circular map and a sighting instrument. He then relays the information by telephone or radio to firefighters.
The goal of a fire lookout is to spot the wisp of smoke among the trees before it becomes a mushroom cloud towering over a mountain, he explains.
"Sometimes you'll see the lightning strike and instant fire," he says. "But you usually see a little trickle of smoke to start with."
Although he has witnessed 21 summers of lightning storms, it was the first fire season on the mountain that he remembers most. He recalls the sky turning black on the evening of Aug. 30, 1987.
"We saw it coming in from the south — we didn't realize how big it was going to be," he says. "But it was a dandy storm."
He tells of lightning storms lined up like soldiers as far as he could see. No rain came with the lightning, which sparked countless fires, some of which would merge in the days to come as they grew into conflagrations.
When the fire season ended in mid-November of that year, some 150,000 acres — about 230 square miles — would be burned by the lightning-caused fires. The biggest among them was the Silver fire, which burned about 100,000 acres in the Siskiyou portion of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
"They told us if we could handle that, then we could handle anything," he says. "That was probably the worst, but '92 was another bad one."
Each summer has brought a new experience. He can tell you about the time he once stood on the insulated stool with the glass legs, something found in most fire lookouts.
"I awoke about 4 o'clock in the morning — thunder woke me up," he recalls. "Strikes were all around. Standing on the little stool, with my eyes closed and my hands over them, it was like looking in an arc welder. It was that bright."
But Mother Nature hasn't been the cause of all the fires he has reported over the summers.
Take the fire he spotted in the Ashland area that he reported early in his career.
"It turned out some guy was cleaning his yard and decided to burn his trash," Struck says. "Well, two or three weeks later this guy comes up to Soda Mountain and starts swearing at me, called me a so-and-so. He said he got a warning ticket."
Noting it was fire season, Struck explained to him he couldn't tell from the distance whether it was debris or his house that was burning. He also educated the homeowner about the dangers of a wildfire in a populated area during fire season.
"I talked to him for a while and we ended up becoming friends," he says. "He brings me some goodies now and then."