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30 years a fire lookout

30 years a fire lookout

Associated Press Virginia Vincent surveys the horizon from her 15-by-15-foot glass and timber tower built 20 feet off the ground that serves as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service on Stark Mountain, northwest of Missoula. Vincent, 71, has manned the Stark Mountain fire lookout for more than 30 summers. Associated Press Vincent poses with a U.S. Forest Service plaque honoring her work as a fire lookout on Stark Mountain, near Huson, in western Montana.

HUSON - It is a moment from childhood branded into memory. A little boy in pajamas sat with his dad, staring through binoculars across the Six Mile Valley to the top of Stark Mountain.

"Maybe Virginia forgot," the boy said. Keep watching, his father assured him.

Finally, as the sun threatened to turn the evening sky orange, the first flash of reflected light from Virginia's signal mirror caught the boy's eye. Then came another, and another.

"There she is!" the boy yelled.

His father pulled the pencil and pad from his shirt pocket and jotted down each flash as the boy called them out. "One long, another long, I think. One short …" It was hard to tell.

When the reflections stopped, the little boy turned to his father. "What did she say?"

His dad paused, drew a final few marks on the pad and turned it to the boy to see. In big block letters, he had written, "H-I-J-O-H-N."

It was 30 years ago, yet every bit of that evening is vivid. My pajamas were red and my fingers sticky from ice cream. The moment alone with Dad was too rare, and the greeting from Virginia in her fire tower atop the mountain at the end of our valley was like magic.

Virginia Vincent greets visitors to the top of her mountain as if she is surprised they got here at all.

"You MADE it," she says, peering over the balcony of her fire tower. "How was the road?"

The "road" to Stark Mountain is a rough one - a narrow 15-mile jeep trail, steep with endless switchbacks, sheer drops and sharp rocks known to puncture gas tanks.

But once at the top, just beyond where big trees won't grow, amid a field of bear grass and red Indian paintbrush, one understands why Vincent, now 71, has come back here for more than 30 summers to be the Stark Mountain fire lookout.

At 7,352 feet - "plus 20," Vincent adds, if you count from her balcony - the view is breathtaking.

As far as the eye can see, it is a vista of valleys, ringed by rugged mountains, followed by more valleys, until it all seems to dissolve together with the sky.

Here, Vincent lives every summer in the tiny 15-by-15-foot fire tower, watching over the scenery for the first signs of new wildfires - "smokes," she calls them. Western Montana has escaped the dreadful fires burning across much of the West this summer, which means it's been a slow season for Vincent.

"Sometimes, it can be a horribly boring job," Vincent admits. "You can go a long time without seeing a smoke."

With Vincent, though, there is a sense the job is only a tiny reason why she is here. Never married and clearly not a woman of extravagance, Vincent has carved out a unique life atop Stark Mountain, one of contented solitude, simple living and an insatiable appetite to learn about everything around her.

She interrupts herself over a long cup of coffee to point out a small sparrow hawk - "it's a kestrel," she corrects - hanging nearly motionless on the wind just outside her tower window.

On a short walk over her lunch break, she stops herself again, drops to her knees and buries her face in a squatty shrub bathed in tiny red flowers.

"Oh, come here, you have to smell this," she coaxes. "It's red mountain heather. It has the most wonderful fragrance."

"There's nobody like Virginia," says Dave Ramirez, the assistant fire manager at the Forest Service's Nine Mile Ranger Station, where Vincent is assigned.

She's considered a bit of a legend at the station, having outlasted a half-dozen rangers and considered the area expert on plants and birds of Western Montana.

"It will be a sad day when she decides she doesn't want to do this anymore," Ramirez says.

That doesn't seem to be a big concern yet. Her hair is gray and Vincent admits she hikes a bit slower than she used to. But she is fit, her eyes are still good and she shows no sign of wanting to give up her seasonal post.

"Every January, I ask myself if I really think I want to do it again," Vincent says, "But come July, here I am. … I can't think of anything else I would ever want to do."

Vincent had wanted to be a lookout since 1946, when, as a teenager, she read a magazine article about a woman who spent her summers in a fire lookout.

Since then, "I've always had it in my mind that this is what I wanted," says Vincent, who has a bachelor's degree in zoology and works at a herbarium at the University of Montana when she's not at Stark Mountain.

She first applied with the Forest Service to be a paid seasonal lookout in 1960, but was turned down. Ten years later, she tried again and was hired. They assigned her to Stark Mountain. Except for one summer in the early 1980s when she worked as a lookout in Oregon, she has been here every year.

There is no television at Stark, no computer, not even running water. Electricity to operate her two-way Forest Service radio and a cell phone comes from two car batteries hooked to a solar charger. The bathroom is a rickety outhouse 300 feet down the hill. It's been here almost as many summers as Vincent.

Her tower is spartan inside - a woodstove for heat, a small bed, a table with a tiny Smith-Corona typewriter, two chairs, and a propane fridge and cooking stove. The middle of the room is taken up by the Osborne Fire Finder, a circular map and compass contraption used for decades by lookouts to pinpoint a fire's location.

Virginia's been a spotter so many years, she hardly needs it anymore.

"She knows every mountain and drainage around her," Ramirez says. "She calls in smokes not only in our district, but the districts around us."

When Vincent started 33 years ago, there were 20 manned lookouts, including Stark, in the Lolo National Forest, the district she watches over. Today, with changing technology, greater use of aerial spotters in airplanes and shifts in Forest Service priorities, there are just five.

Some of the towers were dismantled or closed because they fell into disrepair. Others have been turned into rental cabins for hikers and hunters.

The Stark fire tower, rebuilt in 1963 after the first tower began to deteriorate, is still considered essential. And since the Forest Service hasn't had trouble finding someone to staff it, it's likely going to be around for years to come.

"It's not a job for everyone," Ramirez says. "It can be awfully lonely. … It really does take a special person to spend three months alone on a mountain."

Vincent says she's never lonely. Visitors find their way to the lookout all the time. But even when they don't, she has plenty to keep her busy.

"The secret really of being happy on a lookout these days is having projects," she says. "You have to be independent, you have to be happy being alone. You have to be interested in what you're looking at. I can't think of a more interesting place."

Thirty years earlier, Stark Mountain was about the most interesting, mysterious place possible for a 5-year-old kid in the Six Mile Valley. I knew nothing about Virginia, except what Dad told me. She lived in a little tower on top of the mountain, they both spent summers watching for forest fires, and she was better at it then he was. For that alone, she had earned his respect.

He came home one day from his summer job as an aerial fire spotter and said he had talked with Virginia on the radio. She was going to try to send me a message by signal mirror that evening at dusk.

We didn't tell my brothers. It was just Dad, me, a couple of ice cream cones and his binoculars. In a rare moment for both of us, we sat on the porch, doing nothing but waiting for a sunset.

Do you remember 30 years ago when you signaled me by mirror? I asked Virginia as my visit to Stark Mountain wrapped up.

Vaguely, Virginia said. It was a long time ago, but there was a time when she would exchange simple flashed greetings with people in the valley and even other lookouts.

I told her my dad had said she flashed, "Hi, John," in Morse Code.

She smiled.

"I hate to even tell you this," she said. "But I never learned Morse Code."

There is a bit of me that was devastated. All those years, I had repeated the story about my little magical moment with Virginia.

She quickly reminded me the magic still happened. Credit had just gone to the wrong magician.

"That was a very sweet thing of your dad to do," she said. "That is a wonderful way to remember it. … Sometimes our memories are better than reality anyway."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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