Philip Connors was not just any fire evacuee when a wildfire forced him to flee in a hurry a few months ago. He is a fire watcher for the U.S Forest Service, and is responsible for identifying wildfires early.
He explained that the essence of the job was to be awake at all times and check the windows for smoke.
His usual perch is in a small room at 35-foot high tower, located in the Gila National Forest. It's about 5 miles from the nearest dirt road. This is his home for approximately half of the year.
He was able to pack his belongings and get out of danger by boarding a helicopter.
Conners admitted that he hugged some trees before he left. Conners described how the tree mix changes according to elevation. He said that there was a mixture of conifers mixed with aspen at higher elevations and then a belt of oak and ponderosa, followed by pinyon pine, juniper, and juniper.
Connors is also a writer and deeply cares about the forest he has been watching over for 20 years. It was a completely different forest 20 years ago and will change even more once the flames go out.
He initially viewed the job of a lookout as a paid retreat for writing with great views. He became more aware of the changes that a warmer and dryer climate brought about.
"The place was my refuge and my citadel." He said that the place has brought him so much joy over the years. It's almost as if the tables have been turned. The large chunks of it that are being transformed are disappearing.
He sees signs all around him. The oldest conifers at the highest elevations were snowed in from late March to early April. The soil is now drier and there's less snow.
He said that he felt like he was sending tiny puffs of powder up the ground every step he made as he hiked up the mountain to open the tower for the first spring. "It was the first time I had ever seen it this time of year."
The Black Fire began on May 13th, and Connors witnessed it become a massive fire.
He said, "It was kinda an exercise in psychic disturbance to live in the present of this thing which I felt certain would eventually make me flee." It's just a presence that lurks on your horizon, and you begin to dream about it even at night. After dark, I would climb up the tower to take a look. My northern horizon, which covers 7, 8, and 9 miles, would glow with fire.
After his regular watch was evacuated, he was transferred to another location where the fire was already out.
Connors stated that the spruce and pine forests at high elevations in his region are disappearing.
He said, "My arrival in this area coincided very nicely with the onset the worst megadrought that we've seen for more than a thousand year."
For the Gila Wilderness's Gila trout, salamanders and pocket gophers as well as for Connors, the Gila Wilderness won't be the same. He will observe the forest's healing process and the scars it has left. He said that his responsibility was to "see what the forest wants to be next."