Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher:
On Buck Rock Lookout
In the male-dominated world of firefighting, the U.S. Forest Service depends on Kathryn Ball as a warning system for the ever-present danger of forest fires. For 12 fire lookout seasons, each lasting five to six months, Ball and her dog Annabelle have lived in isolation in the 14-foot square living quarters known as Buck Rock Lookout at an elevation of 8,500 feet in the Sequoia National Forest.
Fire lookouts were established in the early 1900s. “Because trees were viewed as a resource,” says Ball, “we built our nation logging trees, so every measure was taken to make sure they were protected.”
In 1910, fire storms in the West led to systematic building of over 8,000 fire lookouts nationwide. Each tower was placed so there was overlapping coverage of areas, enabling a fire watcher to discover a fire within 20 minutes of its start. Increased technology and decreased budgets in the 1970s and 80s led to the abandonment of many fire lookouts.
“Yet now, more than ever in our history, we need a method for quick detection of fires, which lookouts provide,” says Ball. “There’s a rapidly increasing human population leaving the suburbs and moving into fire-volatile foothill and mountain communities. In some cases, once remote fire towers are now sitting smack-dab in the middle of a town. Scientists project that the effects of global warming will produce significant changes to our fire ecology, increasing the risk for catastrophic wildfires. The scenario is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Ball calls in the first fire report for between 20-30 fires a year. One year that number jumped to 68 fires. “Every fire that I call in quickly, which are most of them, have stayed less than one-half acre,” Ball explains. Some fires have grown larger than one-half acre, but that’s due to a lack of available resources, resources tied up with other fires at the time.
“Spotting and reporting a fire is the adrenaline-rush part of my job,” she says. Still, every time I call in a fire, part of me has trepidation. People I know will go into the forest to fight that fire; and it’s a very serious and risky job.”
Built in 1923, Buck Rock Lookout is located between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. It has not changed much except for the addition of electricity. “It’s like living at the top of the world!” says Ball. “I have a 360-degree unobstructed view of the High Sierra, giant sequoia trees thrive in groves below me and eagles fly by at eye-level. I can trace the headwaters of the Kings River as it flows through the deepest canyon in North America and out into the fertile valleys of Central California, and I can see all the way to the Coastal Range Mountains which border the Pacific Ocean, 150 miles away.”
The living quarters, called a cab, sit on top of a granite spire 1000 feet above the forest floor. Windows make up a good portion of the each wall, squared to the four directions. A fire finder sits in the middle of the room. “Everything I need is contained within the cab,” says Ball. “Basically I have all the comforts of home—a wood stove, refrigerator, sink, coffee-maker, telephone and CD-player. A single bed is positioned along one wall and sits even with the bottom of the windows so I can see out even when in bed. Underneath the bed and above the windows are cabinets for storage. It’s all very efficient.”
Ball uses the fire finder (an instrument that resembles a large compass with a map on it) to locate a lightning strike or smoke and pinpoint the fire’s exact location. “I quickly fill out a report with details of the fire—map coordinates, nearest landmarks, distance to the fire, best access to the fire, what is burning, rate of spread, etc. Then I radio the information to the appropriate dispatch who in turn sends firefighters, helicopters or air tankers to the scene.”
But that’s only the beginning. In addition, Ball guides firefighters into the fire, relays their size-up and resource needs to dispatch, and helps coordinate the fire fighting effort. “I also track the weather,” she says. “Erratic winds are dangerous for firefighters and it’s important for the lookout to track the weather and keep the firefighters informed. I’m up all night with them, checking in every couple of hours. I’ve been told I’m a comfort. I have to stay calm and collected and assure them that everything is going to be okay—that professionalism kind of clicks in.”
Usually the firefighters stay overnight, sometimes days or even weeks and the lookout becomes their lifeline to the rest of the world. This often entails 24 hour-a-day coverage, requiring someone to bring Ball food supplies when she is unable to leave.
“It reminds me of how it was during World War II,” says Ball. “Men went off to war and the women were left behind to take over their jobs, including looking for enemy aircraft. I feel very protective of the firefighters out there. Afterwards, I can be shaky or my adrenaline gets going and I realize how dangerous the situation can be for them.”
Ball once lived the typical city life and commuted three hours a day in rush-hour traffic to a high-stress job in Southern California. She knew there had to more to life, but didn’t know what that was at the time.
“I’m lucky,” she says. “I was raised by a father who told me I could do anything I wanted to do, so I was empowered to be a strong woman, to not have to depend on men or anybody for that matter, that I could go out in the world and be anything I wanted to be. My husband was hired by the Forest Service to re-introduce the endangered peregrine falcon into King’s Canyon near Sequoia National Forest. I left the life I knew to move with him to a tiny little mountain town near his job.”
Ball quickly discovered her love for a life immersed in nature. Her husband died shortly after their move and Ball obtained a job with the Forest Service collecting campground fees. When they asked her to become a fire lookout, Ball jumped at the chance. “The remote lookout post was as far removed from Southern California as you can possibly imagine, but living and working there helped me heal from the tragedy of my husband’s death and changed my perspective on life. I realized I could rely on myself to survive, and that is hugely empowering.”
The break of dawn signals the start of Ball’s day at Buck Rock. “When you live at such a high elevation with little to obstruct the sun, it’s pretty early,” says Ball. “But it’s my favorite time of day. I love watching the sky change colors as the sun begins to rise over the Great Western Divide, a 13,500-foot peak range that stands between my lookout and Mt. Whitney.”
A “catwalk” surrounds the cabin (or cab) like a wrap-around balcony, and Ball spends a lot of time outside “listening to the forest, watching wildlife and looking for smoke.”
Once a month, a fire engine comes to fill the tank that sits on the rock beside the cab. “Non-potable water gets pumped into the sink from the tank and I use it for washing dishes,” says Ball. “I carry up five days-worth of drinking water and food for me and my dog drinking at the beginning of each shift. There’s a wood stove for heat, so I also have to carry up wood, which I split on the rock. Life becomes very basic and simple when you live in a lookout, and you learn that you can survive and make do with very little. I like that it tests me, and I become stronger with the experience of living in a rustic and isolated environment. But you have to be comfortable with yourself to spend so much time alone in an isolated area, and you can’t be afraid of heights. To live at a lookout is to remove oneself from reality, and I must admit there’s a part of me that likes that. It’s like living in a novel.”
Ball spends her day watching for lightning or signs of smoke, especially if there is a high fire danger or threat of thunderstorms, but her typical day is routine. “I make coffee, scan the horizon for smoke, and get dressed, often while listening to NPR. By this time Annabelle is restless, so we climb down the 172 steps to the bottom of the lookout, take our constitutionals and go for a walk.”
After trekking back up the 172 steps to the cab, Ball’s workday begins. “I take and record weather observations, call ‘in service’ on the radio with dispatch of two National Forests and jot notes in the Daily Log. Throughout the day I use the radio, relaying messages for fellow Forest Service employees working in the forest. I listen to three different radios with multiple frequencies. I continue to take weather observations throughout the day, noting and reporting any significant changes like lowering relative humidity or high winds. Every 15 minutes I grab my binoculars and scan for smoke or anything suspicious. I study topographical maps and monitor ongoing fires for unusual fire behavior, watching how the smoke disperses for air quality purposes.”
In addition to her fire lookout duties, Ball educates visitors who climb the steps, teaching them about the history of the lookout, fire ecology and fire prevention. “One of the interesting aspects of working at Buck Rock is listening to people’s stories,” says Ball. “It’s made me realize what a huge role lookouts play in the lives of people associated with the forest. What strikes me is when girls come up to the lookout. They can’t believe I live without a TV, blowdryer, makeup, etc. Then they start thinking it’s pretty neat and ask how they can do it. How can I get this kind of job?”
Ball is the first to admit that working as a lookout is challenging, and especially difficult to spend five to six months away from friends and family. The lifestyle can take its toll, and Ball is no exception.
“During those months I rarely get to see my friends and family,” says Ball. “It’s hard on relationships. Most of the lookouts I know are single, divorced or not married. It’s really tough to have any kind of relationship when you are not around a person and have to communicate though phone or e-mail. I’m lucky to have a very understanding husband. [Ball is now remarried.] We see each other a couple of times a month for six months of the year. Not all husbands would be that understanding of my need to go out and do this.”
Ball adds that she was very close to her nieces, nephew, and godchildren before she took her job as a lookout, but she’s missed their birthday parties, baseball games, dances, etc. In retrospect, it makes her sad that she’ll never see them as kids again since they are close in age to adulthood now.
“Everything at home gets neglected,” says Ball. “Living as a lookout is simply not practical in terms of today’s society. But I have been a fire lookout for 18 seasons [12 at Buck Rock], and no season has been alike. You never know what each year will bring, and I like the anticipation.”
And, there are risks to living in a lookout. Earthquakes have jolted Ball awake. “This mammoth mountain was rumbling on the east side of the Sierra,” says Ball. “It makes you realize you are living in a precarious situation. And lookouts have been known to fall off their towers, some have died.”
The remoteness of the lookout also contributes to the risk. Help is an hour’s drive away, a life flight can be up to two hours and a ground ambulance takes three hours to arrive. Ball is trained in first aid and CPR, and relies on her training, her first aid kit, telephone and radio in the event of an emergency.
Traditionally a male-dominated field, firefighting jobs were reserved for men, and women were prohibited from holding them. “There’s a lot of pride in being a fire-fighter,” explains Ball. “All that adrenaline pumping, the uniform, the specialization, etc. Men didn’t believe women should fight fires and thought it disrupted the bonding it takes for a crew to be cohesive. I don’t think they respected me initially until I proved myself. It was tough and a struggle. Now they react very positively.”
The number of women hired to fight fires increased steadily from the late 1970s and the 1980s when a consent decree forced the Forest Service to hire a certain percentage of women. By 1991, several women helped staff fire engines and the Hot Shot fire crew in the area of the forest where Ball works. Today, however, women serving on fire crews in Ball’s forest district are nonexistent. Ball believes this is due to a lack of women applying and is not certain if it is a trend or “just a blip.” But she stresses that all but one of the paid fire lookouts are women. “We work alone and aren’t generally part of a ‘crew.’
The evolving philosophy of fighting fires in the wilderness has moved from one of total suppression toward one of managing fires for the benefit of surrounding resources. This has changed the role of the lookout in many cases, but the importance of lookouts has not dwindled.
“We are more important now than ever,” says Ball.
For example, Los Padres National Forest along the coastal ranges from Santa Barbara to Big Sur, California has no lookouts. From time to time, Ball takes fire assignments away from Buck Rock where she goes as an individual resource to a large fire and works the fire as a radio dispatcher, staying in the fire camp and providing resources for the ongoing fire.
“The biggest fires I’ve been on are in Los Padres Forest where there is nobody to quickly call in a fire,” she explains. “If we don’t see a fire until it’s 50 or 100 acres, chances are it’s going to get even bigger. Fire lookouts provide fire managers with a built-in 24-hour-a-day fire-behavior-monitoring/smoke-dispersal observing/radio communications-system command post.”
Ball is also quick to point out the intangible reasons for fire lookouts. “Lookouts provide visitors with a unique destination in which to explore the great outdoors. They link people to the land and to our heritage. Lookouts are natural locations in which to engage the imagination and curiosity of our young people.”
At the end of the day, Ball descends the 172 steps to the bottom of the lookout, strolls through the woods with her dog and then returns to watch the sunset. When not busy with lookout duties, Ball works to preserve the tradition. She is President/Executive Director of the Buck Rock Foundation, whose mission is to “preserve the tradition and explore the multi-use potential of fire lookouts and other historic facilities.” The foundation’s first restoration project was Buck Rock Lookout, abandoned in the late 1980s by the Forest service due to a lack of funding.
“Typically, once a lookout is abandoned and left to the elements, it decays and isn’t worth saving and then it’s destroyed,” says Ball. “But a small group of us thought Buck Rock was much too special to let that happen. The lookout was historically significant, as it is one of the earliest style live-in lookouts in the United States. It had become a popular tourist destination by people who were enamored by its unique setting perched on a rock with superb views. And, most significantly, it was still a viable location for the detection of forest fires.”
Some lookouts are being preserved for non-traditional uses, such as a lookout near the coast of California that was recently restored as an observation post to monitor the California condor. Others are rented out to people for recreational purposes. “You can now vacation at a fire lookout,” says Ball. “Fire lookouts are similar to lighthouses in terms of how people react to them—feeling the nostalgia and romance of another era while embracing the natural beauty of their surroundings.” As part of her work in lookout preservation, Ball writes articles, collects and archives memorabilia, and trains volunteer lookouts. She received the Doug Newman Award “in recognition of exceptional achievement and dedicated service in the restoration of historic fire lookouts in California.”
“Living and working at Buck Rock is awe-inspiring and a privilege,” says Ball. “It is a privilege to carry on a tradition, a legacy. One of my favorite quotes from Hallie Daggett, a fire lookout from 1913-1927. She said it best: ‘My interest is kept up by the feeling of doing something for my country – for the protection and conservation of these great forests is truly a pressing need. To women who love the ballroom and the glitter of city life, this work would never appeal, but to me it is work more than useful – it is a grand and glorious vocation-outing, for the very lifeblood of these great foliated mountains surges through my veins. I like it! I love it! And that’s why I am here.’”
To learn more about the Buck Rock Foundation, click here: Buck Rock Foundation
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke: Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright