Friday, February 24, 2023

Top Gun Warlitch

I've been logging wedgetail eagle visits to the granites of the tower lately. Writing down the date, time and number of eagles. Most days a young male eagle visits, cruises around the tower and then flies away across forest country. He's my regular, bright colours, patches of white amongst the striking pattern across his wings. Sometimes in the tower, I'll feel a shadow fall across the summit and there he is. Today was an extended visit. It was thrilling! Sometimes I thought he'd land on the mountain in front of me. Later, two of his siblings hit the skies above me, sending the other birds up to harass them.


Monday, February 20, 2023

Telephone Road

 This story is about trying to meet and not meeting the closest fire tower person to me.

At the beginning of every fire season, I have anxiety dreams about climbing up to the fire tower. It's something I do with every hat I'm wearing. When the academic semester starts, I have anxiety dreams a little short of appearing in front of my class with no clothes on. We all know the deal. Anxiety about an approaching challenge is like getting tattooed twice - feel the pain once through apprehension, then feel the pain again when it actually happens. It's a waste of our energy, but it's real. My anxiety dreams at the beginning of fire season are all about climbing ladders, climbing out into the abyss, only clouds beneath me and a flimsy bit of rusty steel to hold me.

Which is ridiculous, because the fire tower I work on is firmly set on the top of a granite peak. There are only two ladders to climb and they are sturdy, aluminum checkerplate. The rest of the climb is concrete steps and a rather brutally inclining bitumen path, riddled with tiger snakes.

Today, I discovered the source of these anxiety dreams. For the last few years, I've heard the nearest fire tower to me (let's call it Telephone Tower) over the regional transmitters. It's always a man and he does the same as me: calls in the weather and visibility on the hour, and reports smokes. He uses the same reporting system as me - coordinates and smoke descriptions - and often the spotter pilots converse with him, as they do with me, about a new fire in the district. It's a department thing. But he is chimerical, this figure in my life. It's just his voice and the weather stats and yet here we are, both sitting atop fire towers.

We've never communicated because we are in different districts and too far away to see each other's smokes. So today on a rare day off, I decided to track down Telephone Tower and have a cuppa with the tower man. I even bought him a custard pie from a bakery on my way.

It's difficult to find this tower out Nannup way. Goggle Maps gives everyone a bum steer in this country and I've had a bit of experience with tourists getting led into goat tracks and then getting bogged. So I plugged in Telephone Road and followed my nose from there. 


It's hot Jarrah country. Not something I'm used to after the karri forests where I live, or the coastal heath, where I used to live. This country feels firey, like a single spark could just pop the whole place into a disaster zone. Banksia grandis, with her dinosaur-spine leaves and marvellous new flowers followed me. I drove further into the bush. I got to a pine plantation. A blue sedan was parked among the soft needles, one door open. I was thinking murder ballads.


There was a turn off to my left, but it was covered in pine needles and I knew the gravel ahead held the tracks of the Telephone Tower man's car, so I kept going. Took the next left by instinct and there it was! Telephone Tower, rising out of the bush like the sentinel it was.

I leapt out of the car and then realised I'd accidentally parked on an ants' nest and had to jump back and reverse the car to a better spot. Looked up at the tower:

No one was there. The gate was locked. 

After such a long pilgrimage, I felt immense relief. What kind of nutcase climbs a tower like that anyway? And then sits up there all day looking for smoke? No wonder we're called Freaks on Peaks. Just looking at those ladders made the soles of my feet go crazy. Telephone Tower man does this every day? Jesus!

Tourists often ask me, 'What if there is a fire near you? or a lightning storm?' and I feel quite smug in my answers. 'Well, on lookout, I can see a fire or a storm for miles before it gets here.' Maybe Telephone Tower man is as pragmatic as me. Dunno. I never got to have a cuppa with the guy today. Maybe I'll hear him on the radios tomorrow.

Coming home, after seeing the Telephone Tower, I think Mt Frank is the best fire tower ever. We have tiger snakes, dugites and tourists. We don't have that kind of ladder and lonely.


Thursday, February 2, 2023

Trumpets please

 Winning today. 

The mornings are often pretty cruisy in the firetower. I call in the coordinates of smokes from the burn to the north and then make myself a cuppa on the little metho cooker. We have to carry everything up the mountain to our workplace, so on most days I'll cart up a couple of litres of water, lunch, a snakebite bandage and a notebook in my backpack. I have a special stick that I'm superstitious about. I've stripped the karri limb of bark and its striated patterns soothe me whenever I hold it. It helps me on the steep bits of the climb, lifts my weight. I know this sounds weird but I'm attached to my stick. In the past, kids who climb the mountain have seized other sticks of mine and thrown them off, over the granite. Boys, especially, like throwing big things off the mountain. I try to explain to them that This is not a good Thing. 'Do you actually know whether or not a rock climber is scaling the west side?' Also - that's my stick you little shit.

So yes, the mornings are pretty cruisy other than precious Braydon's parents people. This morning, I listened to my audio book (H. Yanagihara's 'To Paradise'. It's amazing by the way), met a group of tourers and watched smoke mooch quietly around a karri knoll.

At about lunchtime, I saw a smoke go up to the north east. There's a lot of dust out that way this time of year. A tractor in a paddock fifty kilometres away will send up a plume that looks just like smoke. All particles in the air, whether it be dust, smoke or steam, behaves in the same way. It swirls, drifts, billows or columns according to what the winds and other elements are doing. Believe me when I say this does my head in and that's why we are only allowed up here four days in a row.

It was dark smoke, billowing and quite dense. But it was staying in the same spot, so I was thinking it couldn't be dust. I worked out the coordinates and called it in. Time, bearing, distance, smoke description, 'maybe dust, I'm not sure.'

Within minutes the spotter pilot was heading that way. She couldn't see it, she said over the radio. Then, 'yep that's a smoke'. When the spotter got overhead, she reported it as a tractor that had caught fire in a wheat paddock. So that's why the smoke looked so dirty, I thought. She read out the coordinates and I realised I was out by about ten kilometres.

I sat back in my 'office' chair in the tower. Well that's a win. Got the distance a bit wrong but that's not too shabby considering it was fifty kilometres away over the flatlands.