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Throughout the drought-stricken forests east of the Mississippi River, the fire danger has never been greater—and the damage rarely so small

All last week, to the distress of most farmers and every hunter, bird watcher and nature walker east of the Mississippi, gentle Indian summer basked—as it had for a month—in a bright, dry coat of autumn leaves. The weather forecasters from southern Maine south and west through Kentucky kept up an irritating chant: "Today fair and mild; tomorrow fair, little change in temperature." Day after day the loathsome sun shone and there was no rain. Everywhere water was scarce, and the rivers were down—the Tennessee, the Monongahela, the Ohio, the Potomac. At Washington Crossing, Pa. the Delaware hit its lowest point since 1932. Farmers of 452 counties in 20 states were declared eligible for federal drought loans. But, worst of all, the forests—350 million acres of commercial timber in the drought area and at least half that much again in brush and scrub—were very dry, primed for fire.

By October 27, the woods had become so dangerous that 12 of 14 states in the eastern forest region took emergency steps. Seven of them—Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and West Virginia—closed their woods to all comers. Pennsylvania canceled all hunting and forbade campfires; Virginia and Maine did the same in their driest counties. Connecticut and Rhode Island prohibited campfires and smoking.

To make a bad situation a trifle worse, radio disc jockeys played Indian rain dance music while newscasters, hooting doom in their customary way, declared that the woods were as "dry as gunpowder" and foresaw holocausts "running into the millions." As the dry days rolled by, fires did indeed pop up here, there and everywhere, each one a plague and a nuisance. But there were no holocausts, or losses in the millions, unless, taking the squirrel's point of view, you count acorns instead of dollars. The largest fire, in New Jersey, burned a mere 3,000 acres—a runt compared to the 70,000-acre burnout in south Jersey last spring. New York, the only state that seemed able to keep both fire-fighting crews and statistical crews abreast of the flames, counted 682 fires since the first of October, but none was a record breaker. Though some days a hundred fires broke out from Kentucky to Maine, most were less than 20 acres—holocausts nipped because eastern fire fighters have learned a lot in the desperate fiery springs and autumns of recent years.

As the third, dry, summery week of October ended, down in Smoky Hollow in the rumpled Allegheny ridges, far, far from the loudest cries of fiery doom, a West Virginia man who, to protect the innocent, will be known as Lester Bumble, lit a cigarette behind a privy and unwittingly dropped the smoldering match in a wedge of leaves. The fire devoured the back of the privy and also three acres of white oak and scrub pine, worth $50 for pulp. The hungry fire would have kept on eating timber, acre after acre, but it had no chance. Within 10 minutes a U.S. forest ranger was on hand, and from separate directions seven volunteer firemen had materialized, like genies rubbed up from a lamp.

With more hunters and general outdoors lovers crowding the woods every year, eastern fire fighters have learned to strike fast; the careless match barely hits the forest floor before someone is there: federal, state or county men, and with them, ordinary citizens who serve as wardens and fire crews. These fire crews are subject to call at any time and are paid only $1.50 or thereabouts for every hour of actual fighting. In the big empty timber country of the West it is practical and necessary to have full-time fighters and smoke jumpers who can be dispatched far and wide. To use the same kind of manpower to protect the major forests and every little, disconnected bosky tract in the crowded East is extravagant and not altogether practical. The job falls most sensibly to a levy en masse of local men who live close to the woods, so close in many cases that their own roofs are at stake.

Despite this constant surveillance and the exclusion of careless visitors from the greater part of the eastern forests, the fires still broke out. Usually there was no accounting for them. God often tosses thunderbolts around, but He has not done so once in this sere, benign autumn. Some of the fires were started by careless hunters and campers who went into the woods despite the closure, taking their cue from Henry Thoreau, a woodsman much admired for his civil disobedience. Many fires undoubtedly were arson of one sort or another—the work of nuts or delinquents and in some cases grudge fires set by hunters rankled about the closure. A few outbreaks originating on slopes well removed from fire lanes looked suspiciously like so-called "job fires," laid by wardens and fire crewmen who needed the money. The least suspect was the moonshiner. The breed still lingers in some mountain pockets, but the moonshiner must attract little attention, and so he tends his fires carefully.

As long as fires suddenly sprout in woods where the public supposedly is not, the woods must be watched and patrolled. Compared to the actual, grimy business of fire fighting, the watching and patrolling is an ordeal of dullness, a constant quest for a culprit who hopefully does not exist, a constant alert for the first smoky sign of a fire that hopefully never will be. There is no way to win, and the only release can come when the sky turns a beautiful filthy gray, then drops an inch of drenching rain. On the day that Lester Bumble set his fire in the north end of the Monongahela National Forest, 70 miles away at the far end of the forest, Joel Hockinson, a 25-year-old forester, had completed his 10th consecutive day of mobile fire patrol. In his Chevy truck, he had been driving over bad roads up one drainage and down another, probing up the side draws and hollows, taking as much of the rutty byroads each day as his emotions and kidneys could stand.

When he first started this tour, before the final closing of the forest, Joel Hockinson's day was quite sociable, his duty to contact all hunters and anglers and advise them of the coming closure. But now, unless he finds a culprit—at the very least an authorized logger or pulp cutter who is not using spark arrestors—Hockinson talks to no one face to face. His two-channel radio is constantly on, and the ultimate in sociability is suddenly to hear the Hopkins Mountain lookout tower blare out on his radio, "KQC-2014-110-8"—which, translated, means "This is Hopkins tower. I see no fires. I am open to receive messages." Hockinson then tells the tower where he is going. After this scintillating exchange, he goes there.

Wherever he goes, he passes under and by thousands of oak, pine, yellow poplar, maple, chestnut oak, hemlock, and the dead snags of real chestnut, still standing these 30 years after the species was wiped out by fungus. He sees no bear, deer or coon, only a few furtive birds and spunky chipmunks. When he goes up long drainages looking for loggers, usually they are off deeper in the woods. He shouts in the direction where they might be, "Yo hey," but only a distant hill throws his own voice faintly back in his face. At an abandoned and unsuccessful iron mine atop Beaver Lick Mountain he looks down at distant houses and cars, but only the snarling of a power saw comes to him from somewhere, mixed with the cacophony of quarreling crows. As he drives down the north fork drainage of Anthony Creek, he half hopes that Old Man Floyd Rider or at least one of his 60-year-old kids will come storming out to challenge his right to pass. Old Man Rider and the rest of the Riders are inholders, their land completely surrounded by forest land. Old Rider blew one of his hands off some years back while setting off dynamite to celebrate Christmas eve, but he has lost none of his inner fire. He still is wont to stop hunters passing over his privately maintained road, charging them a buck or two toll depending on what he thinks they are good for. Old Rider has fenced off some of the federal land for his own use, and when challenged by forestry men has occasionally produced a gun. The issue is now in the Attorney General's office. As he passes the Rider holdings, Hockinson sees one of the Rider women about her business on a porch, but no words, kind or harsh, are exchanged.

Ordinarily Hockinson works a five-day week, but he will continue to serve seven days a week as long as two rather obtuse but important fire-fighting indexes are stacked against him. They are called the burning index and the buildup index, two intercorrelated factors used to assess the danger of fire and to indicate how much rain is needed to wash the danger away or diminish it. During most of the time Hockinson has been on the prowl the buildup index has been a maximum of 100, the burning index also dangerously high, hitting 90. It would take a soaking rain—half an inch or more—to free Hockinson.

Two weeks ago, when Hurricane Ginny first jumped up at sea, foresters' spirits in Monongahela rose. There was little chance that the full hurricane would move across the mountain ridges, but there was the possibility that Ginny's long, spiraling, wet arms might reach across to caress the forest. The clouds came, the forest district just to the north got a trace of rain, then Ginny turned away. The indexes stayed up, the danger extreme. Hockinson had been hoping to get a weekend off so he could go home with his wife to Hollidaysburg, Pa.

From his 80-foot tower on Hopkins Mountain, Lookout Edgar Hull, whose voice often squawks cryptically on Forester Hockinson's mobile radio, can see his own house two beeline miles below him in the valley. But he has not been home since October first. If Hurricane Ginny had pushed the buildup index down he might have had an evening with his wife and daughters.

During the fire seasons—the six months of spring and fall—Edgar Hull lives in a 14-by-13 cabin at the foot of his tower. He spends most of each day in the tower and climbs back up the 112 steps three times each night for a look around. The Hopkins tower was built by the CCC in the '30s, but there is still a comfortably safe feel about it, except when winds gust more than 25 miles and the tower cabin begins to heave like a balloon gondola trying to lift off.

But Hull is a phlegmatic man, not the sort ever to be affected by the mere functional idiosyncrasies of a tower or even by his own isolation. Though physically alone, he is not lonely. As the dispatcher for his district of the forest, he is in radio contact with all the ground activity and also operates on the same frequency as most of the other lookout towers, federal and state, for 40 miles around. The long parallel ridges of the West Virginia mountains are herringboned with small draws and hollows, and a sharply defined zone defense against fire is impossible. A fire within five miles of one tower is often first seen by another far away.

The night after Hurricane Ginny backtracked, Hull's first business was to take a report from a warden on the eastern flank of the main Allegheny ridge, in the George Washington National Forest, where a passer-by claimed to have spotted a fire. Hull tried to pass the word on to Brushy Mountain, a tower astride the Virginia-West Virginia border. Failing there, he reported directly to a fire-control officer of the George Washington Forest. Hull never saw the faintest glow nor knew if there really was a fire. (There was. It raced up a slope, with 27 men hacking fire lanes on both flanks, holding it to 35 acres until it finally played out on a crest.)

In the morning on Hull's radio there is a spate of messages for the first hall hour as the ground crews and patrols report their locations and itineraries. Then a report crackles in from someone on the tower frequency: Hurricane Ginny has turned around and is coming in again. From Hull's tower it truly looks that way, the wind upping a little from the south and soft, high haze showing over the southeast rim of the mountains.

Ten minutes later Cottle Knob, a state tower, reports smoke at a heading of 67°. Red Oak tower passes the news on to the Sharp Knob tower. Sharp Knob reports that what Cottle Knob sees is the Webster City dump.

Hull's telephone rings. It is his father, who occupied this same tower for 11 years before him. The senior Hull has been watching the Today show on television and merely wants to cheer his son up. The Today show is predicting rain for West Virginia by Saturday. (Hooray.) Hull switches to the ground channel and advises all hands that things are "4-1" (no fires).

Then, 20 minutes later, just beyond a small spur ridge west of White Sulphur Springs, Hull sees a faint drift rising. He calls the fire tower on neighboring Brushy Mountain. "It's awful light smoke," Hull advises Brushy. "I'll check it," Brushy says. It turns out to be the cloud thrown up by a farmer spreading lime. Red Oak tower hails Mike's Knob. Red Oak is seeing smoke at a 300° heading. What does Mike's Knob think? "It's that new coal tipple," Mike's Knob says. "I didn't know there was a new coal tipple," Red Oak replies, sounding a trifle hurt for having been left in the dark. Later, about 10 miles southwest of Hopkins Mountain tower, smoke billows up, but Hull ignores it totally. It is the dump of the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs putting out more smoke than usual.

At 2:20 p.m. on a 221° heading over Bear Wallow Ridge, easily 10 miles away, Hull sees fire for sure, a tall column of smoke rising. He passes the word on to Paddy Knob. A light plane scouts it twice. It is still smoking away when the sun goes down, and Hull, the discoverer, has no way of knowing whether six men, a dozen or a hundred are over there battling it.

As the sun sets, there are beautiful cyclonic arcs of cloud across the sky. Ginny is heading back, but one day later Ginny retreats again. Once more the burning index climbs. Although Hull is an unemotional man, when he reads the weather to the ground forces, there is disappointment in his voice. "Tonight broken clouds. No rain," he says as he has said so often. "Tomorrow, broken clouds. No rain."

Two days later a cold front pushes through. A light spatter of rain soaks the dry crackle out of the leaves. The bottom drops out of the burning index; the buildup index drops five points. Edgar Hull is allowed to come down off his mountain and say hello to his wife and kids. Paddy Knob, Red Oak and Cottle Knob and all the other eyes on the mountaintops get a few hours' relief from the long days of watching for the enemy that pops up anywhere.


On a ridge above Charleston, W. Va., flaring night fire spreads through the parched brush.