A View from Above
Nancy Hood is quick to observe she didn't start out to establish any records in the Klamath National Forest.
Or anywhere, for that matter.
"I'm just an introvert — I was born an introvert," she declares. "And this is the perfect job for an introvert."
Hood, 72, is beginning her 53rd consecutive summer as a fire lookout in the Klamath forest, maintaining a lonely vigil atop a remote mountain peak while scanning the horizon for the first tendril of smoke from a wildfire.
Her unbroken span as a fire lookout in one forest is believed to be the longest in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, according to both the agency and the national Forest Fire Lookout Association.
When she started as a fire lookout in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States. The Cold War was heating up. And just two years earlier, the first Russian Sputnik had pioneered its way across the night sky, launching the space race.
"Now we watch the space station," says Hood, a petite woman with a big personality whose friendly chatting belies her introvert claim.
"Boy, those first 50 years have gone by like nothing," she says from atop her present perch on Lake Mountain, 6,877 feet above sea level some two-dozen air miles south of the Oregon state line.
Fittingly, the mountaintop where she has spent every summer for the past two decades is the site of the oldest lookout in California. The peak was first used as a fire lookout in summer 1911. She also has served summers on three other lookouts in the forest.
Based on an average 25 fires discovered during a fire season, Hood has reported more than 1,300 fires during her career.
"Nancy holds the record of all time staffing a lookout," says Ray Kresek of Spokane, Wash., a retired firefighter and author of the book "Fire Lookouts of the Northwest." A copy of his 414-page book can be seen on the small table in the Lake Mountain lookout.
"We haven't been able to find anyone in the country who has been a fire lookout longer than Nancy," adds Howard Verschoor, 58, a Medford native and disabled logger who is Oregon director of the FFLA.
The nonprofit association, which honored Hood following her 50th consecutive year as a lookout, is dedicated to preserving fire lookouts and educating the public about their legacy.
"I can't imagine anyone being even close to her in longevity — 50 years is a long time," says forest spokesman Tom Lavagnino.
Not only is she a gold medalist in terms of fire lookout longevity but she also is a forest treasure, notes Jaime Tarne, a former fire lookout and now a forest fire prevention officer.
"Nancy is really great at her job," she says. "When we do get a lot of lightning strikes, it's really important those folks stay calm. Giving really good, quality information while staying calm and being accurate is extremely important. Nancy does that very well."
She is following legendary footsteps: Hallie Daggett, the first female forest fire lookout in the agency, was first employed on the Klamath forest in 1913, Tarne adds.
A native of Bakersfield who now lives in Scott Bar, Calif., Hood arrived in the region with her parents and a brother in 1946. Five years later, the family moved to Sacramento, where she would graduate from high school. Her parents were both teachers.
"But the family that rented our house here worked for the Forest Service — she was a fire lookout," Hood recalls. "When she was going to retire, she told me I ought to come up and do this. She knew I was a tomboy."
By then, Hood had a couple of years of college under her belt, majoring in mechanical engineering.
"They hired me for Dry Lake (lookout) way over on that ridge over there — the lookout isn't there anymore," she recalls as she points out a mountain to the east.
"I couldn't get a car way up from Sacramento so they had to get in the habit of bringing water and food for me and the two puppies," she says.
But Hood, who is single, immediately fell in love with the mountaintop job.
"I was going to college when I started but this job completely ruined me cramming for tests," she says. "After that first summer, you put me in a room with no windows and every 10 to 15 minutes I'd still get up and start looking."
She also discovered that a college degree wasn't needed for fire lookouts.
"So I went for the pleasure of the job," says Hood, who is now part of the forest's permanent staff, working six months out of the year.
Each winter during her earlier years, she used to repair cars and mine for gold. But she always looked forward to late spring when the mountainous country began to dry out in advance of the coming fire season.
"I'd rather be up here than down there, particularly during the heat," she says. "I have never been bothered by loneliness. You are always finding something new that you never noticed before.
"But you have to be able to take the solitude."
She reads, knits, plays solitaire and solves puzzle books, all activities she stops doing every few minutes to study the vast Klamath region.
"When you first get to a lookout, you always start learning your country with binoculars," she says.
With that, she points to mountains north in Oregon.
"Bolan Peak is vaguely there under that batch of clouds," she says of a no-longer-used lookout southeast of Cave Junction. "You can't see Dutchman (lookout) right now. It's in those clouds over there. Over there a little farther to the east is Soda Mountain (lookout)."
An equal distance to the south juts up the snow-capped Marble Mountains.
As she acquaints her visitors with the lay of the land, she keeps her eyes peeled for smokes.
"After you've done it a while, you just keep looking around for something different, for anything that looks wrong," she explains.
She is an expert at distinguishing wisps of clouds — water dogs — from thin trails of smoke rising from a lightning strike following a wet thunderstorm.
"I tell the new ones (lookouts) to not report it instantly but to study it," she says. "You gotta learn the difference."
That doesn't mean that even a veteran lookout is infallible, she stresses.
"I did report a McCormick (wheat harvester) out in the Shasta Valley once," she says with a chuckle. "It looked like a smoke. It turned out to be a harvester stirring up dust."
Over the years, she has seen every fierce creature the forest has to offer, from bruin to mountain lion.
"Just a week ago, a bear and his girlfriend came through," she says. "The bears always investigate my new toilet. They'll sometimes put their hands on the door. They are apparently pushers and not pullers so they can't get in."
Human visitors drop in periodically, but most days she sees no one.
"In the old days, we lived here, didn't go down at all," she says. "You had two days off a week but you didn't take them unless you needed to go to town. Maybe you couldn't stand being up here anymore and needed to go to town to socialize."
Now the fire lookout staff is required to take the days off the mountains, she says.
Lake Mountain has a California cab-style lookout with a 14-foot-square room built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. However, it sits on top of a small stone room built 100 years ago for the first fire lookout.
The lookout is self-contained with no electricity. Inside the room is a gas stove, hand pump for water from a holding tank and a bed.
The technology employed at a lookout hasn't changed much in the past 53 trips around the sun, she says.
"We still use a radio, binoculars and a fire finder," she says.
Located in the center of the room, the circular Osborne Fire Finder, invented in 1915 by W.B. Osborne, a Forest Service employee from Portland, enables a lookout to pinpoint a fire's location on a topographic map.
This one is rigged up with a 9-power Bushnell telescopic sight typically found mounted on a deer rifle.
"The scope is for those of us who are getting older," she says.
Since she's only 5-foot-3, she stands on a wooden box to peer through the scope.
You won't find a computer in her fire lookout. While she knows nearly every geographic feature on any horizon, she says she gets lost in the cyberspace world.
"Computers, they just cringe when they see me coming," she says. "I'm completely illiterate when it comes to that."
But she does use a cellphone to augment the radio to communicate with the outside world. The radio is used solely for providing information that all the lookouts in the forest can use, including weather, atmospheric changes and lightning activity.
When she arrived at the lookout on June 26 this year, it was her latest start ever for the season, she says.
However, she will tell you a late start doesn't always predict fire activity. She was staffing the Collins Baldy lookout some 12 miles to the east in summer 1987 when a lightning bust hit late in August. The storm triggered fires that burned some 200,000 acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
"That was the first real dry storm I have been in," she says. "You see a down strike, write down the location and look up to see smoke already rising up. You couldn't keep up with 'em."
Yet, in more than half a century on the job, she has never been in a lookout that has been struck by lightning.
"I seem to be a jinx when it comes to having lightning strike a lookout," she says. "I'll have the thunder and stuff right overhead but I've never had a strike hit the building.
"It always seems like it is coming at us with down strikes, then about a quarter of a mile away, it just quits," she says. "The cloud lightning will go over us, then about a half a mile away, it starts putting them down again."
Although there are fewer mountain peaks staffed with fire lookouts than back in 1959 when she started, Hood figures there always will be a need for a human presence.
"I don't think machines are perfect," she says. "We can adapt. They can't.
"I plan to continue doing this as long as I can," she adds before picking up her binoculars again. "I sure don't plan on retiring anytime soon."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.