She practices her violin for upcoming performances with the White Mountain Symphony Orchestra while watching for smoke from 31 feet off the ground.
She occasionally spots a turquoise-feathered Lazuli bunting while scanning the horizon for flames.
For the past 30 summers, except for the one after she had her daughter, Janie Croxen Ringleberg has called in to the Springerville Interagency Dispatch Center at 0800 before she starts her shift as one of the few remaining paid fire watch tower employees anywhere. At one point, Arizona had 120 active lookouts, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. As of 2011, only 77 towers were still standing and 58 were last known to be staffed by temporary employees or volunteers.
Ringleberg has seen, maybe as well as anyone, how climate change, drought and historical fire suppression have worsened wildfires and changed Arizona’s alpine forests. To accompany a series of stories for the 20th anniversary of the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the most devastating in state history at the time and a disaster that became lodged in the minds of many White Mountain residents, The Arizona Republic talked with her about it.
She shared her love of the forest, her wisdom from the tower and her fears for the future.
On the wildfire watch:A fire lookout’s life at 40 feet up, diligently scanning for smokes
Mrs. Ringleberg, what made you decide you wanted to spend your days scanning the horizon for smoke?
What inspired me was, I am, I guess what you would consider a third-generation lookout. My grandfather, Fred Croxen, was a lookout. He said that he was the first Forest Service lookout in Arizona. This was back about 1916. He had wanted to go and serve the country with World War I. But the Forest Service was a new agency and he was a civil servant that they wanted to have out here helping to take care of the timber resource. I think he really only did that maybe one year, but then he became a forest district ranger here and there throughout Arizona. My father didn’t make a career of being a lookout either. But he did do an occasional summer here and there in the (Santa) Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
I just kind of grew up hearing Forest Service stories. So I majored in wildlife ecology at the University of Arizona. And then it seemed natural for me to apply with the Forest Service. My first year out of college, I was hired to be on a firefighting engine crew. And while there, it didn’t take long for me to meet the love of my life, my husband, Joe. Some of our conversations were around putting fires out. So we got married, and he finished his degree in forestry, and I followed him in his career.
I haven’t always worked up in the lookout tower I have done a lot of fieldwork too. But the lady that was the supervisor for the lookout towers was needing to fill a position for somebody who had left. So in conversation with Joe, she found out that I had lookout experience. And so she said, would you like to come to work? And the rest is history. I did go to work, and I’ve been here ever since.
What does a typical day consist of for you up there?
I call the dispatchers’ office in Springerville at 0800. That’s when all the lookouts across the Mogollon Rim go into service in the morning. Since May 8 (this year), I have been working six days a week, each of those have been 10-hour days, from 0800 to 1830. We typically get sufficient rains beginning shortly after the fourth of July. So that’s when I suspect we will get a little bit of a reprieve up here.
Eight to nine o’clock in the morning, that’s my bird-watching time. That seems to be when the birds on the mountaintop here are still active from the earlier cooler hours of the morning. This stationary platform is great for that, because I’m at eye level with a lot of the birds that come up to the mountaintop, and I enjoy looking at them through binoculars up close.
More climate change impact:Forests often regenerate after wildfires. Why the climate crisis could change that
As the morning progresses, I enjoy doing various needlework projects, mostly cross stitch or embroidery. Then at noon, I go out of service for half an hour and I get out of here. I enjoy walking 15 minutes down from the tower and then back up. That kind of transitions the day for me puts a fresh start on the afternoon. The rest of the day is basically just catching up on my reading. I also, from time to time, bring my violin up, and I’m able to practice while shuffling some looks around to make sure that I’m keeping up on what’s happening in the landscape around me.
On windy days, I don’t do a whole lot of reading. I do mostly scrutinizing, almost like I’m watching a television screen all day because a little bit of something going wrong with heavy winds knocking it forward would just be bad news. Real bad news.
There’s also an educational component to your role, right?
Yes, another aspect of my job is welcoming tower visitors. I enjoy having them because everybody is interesting, everybody comes from a different walk of life. I get upwards of 1,000 people each season visiting up here. My tower is 11 by 11 (feet) in dimension, so there is room for visitors to come up and it’s just 31 feet off the ground, so that’s not too intimidating for a lot of people.
Lots of times they bring up grandkids or their children and I have a little program up here called the Smokey Bear Springer Mountain Kid Club. That’s where I do my education on the importance of fire prevention with the children. Of course, the adults are listening in on this too. I have a little mock-up of a campfire that I get out and we pretend like we’re roasting marshmallows and hot dogs and then I tell them that it’s important to have enough water and a shovel to drown the fire, stir the fire and then feel the fire. I tell the kids, “don’t forget to leave Smokey a hot dog or a marshmallow.” But really the main thing he wants to find is a campfire mud pie.
Then I take the kids’ picture, with parents’ permission, and I have them holding a little figurine of Smokey Bear, sort of like the Oscar figurines. I have dozens of kids’ photographs on the walls here (in the tower) with them smiling and having a good time.
How have you seen the forest around Pinetop change over your 30 years in the Springer Mountain Lookout?
What was happening historically was that the Ponderosa pine forest was resistant to fire as long as the fires were cooler. They say that every acre of the Ponderosa forest burned on average every 15 years. And that was frequent enough so that the accumulated branches and the grasses underneath the trees could be burned up in cooler fires that wouldn’t be hot enough to scorch their way all the way up the tree, then get into the crown and blow during a windstorm from crown to crown.
Then fire suppression became the goal. Those crown densities in the forest (became) so tight that the wind just blows the fire and the flames from tree top to tree top, for acre after acre.
Now, it seems like, over the whole state, our range lands and our forests now are working under the goal of restoration. Because we realized that the historic forest was a healthy forest. There were very few doghair thickets, and it had a much lower crown density per acre. It was a forest that would be able to sustain itself and not burn up.
It seemed like the scale tipped in Arizona for us right about 1990. That’s when we encountered our first fire, it was called the Dude Fire. It burned 28,400 acres and burned up 56 homes and six firefighters died in that fire as well. That was the beginning of forest fires that were over 20,000 acres in size. And that was the beginning of what we call the megafires.
You’ve witnessed some of those megafires from the tower. Has seeing that changed how you do your job?
Well, in all actuality, I have not changed my vigilance at all. I have the same level of vigilance now that I did 30 years ago. Even though the national forests have been thinned out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the urban private lands around me are that different from what they were 30 years ago. Unfortunately, there are still acres and acres of private land that are just the same as they were 30 years ago. So there’s just as much need, maybe more if there are more people living up here, for me to be up here because now I am not only taking care of the natural resource of the forest, I’m watching out for people’s lives.
Fire and watersheds:How thinning dense Arizona forests could protect water sources
How long do you plan to (wo)man the Springer Mountain Lookout?
I have two grandchildren that are going to be getting up into a fun age. I want to be retired during the summers during that precious time of their childhood to be able to visit with them more.
It’s going to be emotional for me to give this up. I do want it to be continued. There’s probably somebody out there who is going to take it over for me. And that’s wonderful because I want this tower to be enjoyed and utilized by the public and to continue to be a service to this urban interface.
That’s my great hope, that somebody will come along who has as much interest in it as I have had over the years.
Joan Meiners is the climate news and storytelling reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a Ph.D. in ecology. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at email@example.com.