In Love, But Apart: Couple Fights Fires in the American West

Just outside the one-room cabin that gives her a 360-degree panorama of the Montana wilderness below, Samsara Duffey peers into a pair of binoculars. All around her, the parched mountains are shrouded in smoke blown over from blazes in Idaho and Oregon. Under that gray veil, the Rockies look mystical, almost ethereal.

Suddenly, Samsara focuses. She thinks she’s spotted a puff of smoke emerging from a dead tree in the valley right across from her. But it’s a false alarm – an illusion caused by the faraway wildfires.

For 25 straight summers, Samsara has been retreating into the wilderness to work as a fire lookout, a seemingly anachronistic firefighting job requiring little in the way of today’s technology and instead relying on good eyesight, knowledge of the local environment and a rare aptitude for extreme solitude. But even for her, this summer’s dry and smoky conditions in the American West are tough.

The drift smoke makes it hard for her to determine the difference between smoke from a new fire igniting on her patch and a mirage from an already unfolding disaster. “This is a lookout’s nightmare,” says the 45-year-old, a deep V-shaped tan down her chest and her wispy hair loosely tied back.

While Samsara, a lone sentinel on her mountaintop, scours the horizon for fires, her husband, Mark Duffey, is some 280 miles away preparing to parachute out of a plane to fight them.

Mark is part of an elite squad of some 320 Forest Service firefighters known as smokejumpers, first responders who plunge from planes to tackle remote wildland fires. When the alarm at his base in southern Montana goes off, he kicks into gear. He has around five minutes to put on his jumpsuit and gear – which weigh around 80 pounds total – and hop on a Dornier twin turboprop plane. He and seven other smokejumpers are flying to a blaze in neighboring Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. Mark lands in a cow pasture, trudges over closer to the fire and digs a ditch in the earth to try to box it in.

 

Samsara doesn’t hear from Mark for several hours. But that evening, her phone, resting on a roll of duct tape near the window where she sporadically gets cell service, buzzes with a message. Mark has sent a picture of a white mariposa lily, a delicate survivor on the sidelines of the fire. The flower, while beautiful, also bears an important message: Mark is done for the night, and safe. “When he’s working, we ignore each other,” Samsara says.

This is how the Duffeys spend their summers: apart, unable to see each other for weeks on end, but united in fighting the American West’s ever-worsening forest fires.

So far this summer, blazes have torn through 5.7 million acres of the United States. Summer wildfires, fueled by climate change, have also ignited in other parts of the world, roaring in several Mediterranean countries and from Syria to Siberia.

In the western United States, climate change is raising temperatures and exacerbating drought, helping to create the hellish fire season this year. June was the hottest month on record in the country, with California’s Death Valley roasting under temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius), while July was the world’s hottest month on record. Flammable dry brush and dead trees have built up after decades of fire suppression. Megafires, blazes that burn more than 100,000 acres, have become a new normal in states like California.

Such extreme weather events will only become more severe, a U.N. climate panel said in a landmark report in August, warning that global warming is close to spiraling out of control. Quick moves to cut greenhouse-gas emissions could curb some of global warming’s impact, but the world’s emissions of such gases – mostly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels – are still rising.

“At least over the next few decades, we are going to see these recurring really large, catastrophic wildfires,” Ben Cook, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says of the western United States. “You’ll have good years, and you’ll have bad years, but climate change is leading towards a trend of more area burned every year.”

The forecasts are ominous for firefighters like Mark, whose job is already grueling on the best of days. For around $25 per hour – a wage that is higher than the entry-level smokejumper pay of roughly $16 per hour given his 23 years of service – he can be deployed anywhere in the country. He fights fires for up to the 16-hour limit, eats freeze-dried food and sleeps under a rudimentary tent fly, and does it over and over for up to 14 days straight, the typical rotation for federal firefighters.

 

Burnout is an ever-present concern. And with the fire season lengthening, it means more time apart for Mark and Samsara, who reconnect in the off season at home in the town of West Yellowstone. She works as a winter guide in the nearby Yellowstone National Park, while he grooms cross-country ski trails in the Gallatin National Forest.

“In the early days of my career, you had July, August and September to make your money for the year,” says Mark, 47, standing in front of the doorless locker where his gear hangs, ready to be grabbed. “We’re starting earlier, in May, and working into October. Everybody’s got fires going on.”

The radio and the wind

Back at the lookout, Samsara’s radio stays on all day and night. It crackles to life with reports from firefighters, fellow lookouts and hikers trekking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The “Bob,” as locals call it, is a huge, roadless wilderness preserve home to rugged peaks, Douglas fir forests and grizzly bears whose tracks Samsara sometimes spots.

Beyond the radio, there are few human sounds in the 16-by-16-foot lookout perched atop Patrol Mountain. To get to its 8,000-foot peak, Samsara climbs a six-mile trail, whose trailhead itself is an hour’s drive from the nearest town: Augusta, population 318.

 

Around 80 visitors, mostly hikers, make their way to the cabin each summer. Samsara welcomes them warmly, but notices her throat gets sore from the sudden talking.

There are plenty of other sounds for Samsara to feast on. Wind rattles the lookout as if it were in an earthquake. Marmots who share her mountaintop whistle and gnaw at the lookout’s plywood. Samsara’s devoted border collie, Mae, growls occasionally.

For Samsara, raised by free-spirited parents who spent several summers living in a teepee, nature has been a companion from the earliest of days. “I remember the smell after the dogs had been skunked,” she says. “Hearing beavers slap their tails in the pond. The sound of wind in the Aspen groves.”

She went on to study wildlife biology in Alaska – “my two favorite directions are north and west, and it was about as north and west as I could get.” One summer during college, Samsara didn’t have a job. Her older sister had found work at the Prairie Reef lookout, also in “the Bob,” and when the man who used to staff the nearby Patrol Mountain lookout chose not to return, Samsara took his spot. She was 21. She says the solitude of the wilderness immediately hooked her.

Built in 1962, the lookout is framed on all sides by 107 large window panes, making for a very early, sun-smothered wake-up. Inside, there’s a bed, a stove, a counter and a footrest Samsara fashioned out of an old U.S. government trunk she found under the lookout. There’s also a hand mirror she never uses – “unless I have something in my eye” – and stacks of knitting yarn, audiobooks and a photo of Mark parachuting. To go to the bathroom, she walks down a rocky trail to a lone toilet seat built on top of the mountain. It has no walls, and looks over miles of wilderness.

At the center of the lookout is the Osborne Fire Finder, an early 20th century turning board that is still every lookout’s prime tool.

A circular, graduated measurement ring surrounds a flat map that has the lookout in its center. To find a fire’s bearing, Samsara squints into a sighting hole on one side of the tool’s rim. She rotates the measurement ring until it is aligned with a crosshair in a sighting device on the opposite side, through which she can also see the fire or smoke. Then, using the map and her knowledge of the terrain, she can estimate roughly how far away the fire is from her. She uses her radio to call the dispatch center in Great Falls and provides them with the fire’s coordinates and characteristics.

This old-fashioned way of spotting blazes grew popular after terrible fires swept through the West in 1910, burning an estimated 3 million acres. By around the 1950s, around 5,000 fire lookout towers had been built across the United States. Many have since closed, as infrared cameras and drones replace the human eye. The Forest Fire Lookout Association estimates that only around 400 lookout towers are still operational today.

 

But Samsara says lookouts make sense in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where vehicles are banned and cell signal is intermittent. In any case, at roughly $15 per hour, she’s hardly denting U.S. coffers. The wage adds up to between $10,000 and $14,000 per four- to five-month season, depending on overtime. It includes the handful of weeks she spends doing miscellaneous work for the Forest Service before opening the lookout in June. From her three-month-long winter job, she earns less than $7,000.

Most of the fires in Samsara’s area are started by lightning, not humans. Nationally, though, 84% of wildfires with known causes are triggered by humans, according to data compiled by Karen Short, a research ecologist with the Forest Service. Debris burning, arson, equipment use and campfires are common ignitors.

But lightning strikes are growing more frequent as hotter temperatures and increased moisture essentially add fuel to storms.

David Romps is a climate physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. He and his colleagues published research in 2014 suggesting a 50% increase in lightning in the United States by the end of the century as compared to the start of it, if emissions follow a business-as-usual rise.

“It has almost entirely to do with the increase in energy available to storms,” Romps said in an interview. “So storms become more energetic, and some of that energy goes into generating lightning.”

How many wildfires that additional lightning triggers depends on where the strikes fall; if they hit already-charred ground, for instance, there may not be a commensurate increase in wildfires. Last summer, around 14,000 lightning strikes, mostly in Central and Northern California, ignited hundreds of fires, many of which merged to become bigger conflagrations.

When Samsara opened the lookout in late June, she immediately realized conditions were particularly dry and warm this year. A drift of snow that usually lasts until August was gone by early July. The man who delivers her groceries, on mules, arrived wearing a cowboy hat; last year he was bundled in a yellow down coat and an ear-flap hat.

Drought conditions are currently affecting around 94% of the western United States, a category that covers nine states, including Montana, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a tracker that releases a weekly drought map. Earlier snowmelt and less precipitation falling as snow, which typically acts as a natural reservoir for the summer months, have contributed to reservoirs sinking to historic lows. Montana’s snowpack, for instance, has been decreasing since the 1950s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Even in the context of the last two decades, this year is particularly exceptional,” says climate scientist Cook. “By the end of the summer, it will likely be as bad or worse as 2002, which was the single worst drought year across the West in the last couple of decades.”

In early July, after a lightning storm, Samsara spotted her first fire of the season, dubbed the Limestone Fire. Smokejumpers were dispatched to put it out the next morning, she says. Some days later, when the drift smoke started to lift, she spotted a big column of smoke to the south. The blaze, known as the Dry Cabin Fire, is still burning, according to wildfire tracker InciWeb. Although firefighters did intervene to protect a cabin, the fire is staying low and so is not a high priority at the moment, the Forest Service said.

Even after spotting some 50 fires throughout her career, Samsara gets a jolt when she spots a fresh one. “My heart starts racing, and I get a little short of breath.” She says she has never missed a fire starting in her view, although it’s much more challenging for her to spot smoke quickly when it’s coming from behind a ridge.

The smoke from the fires can be a challenge, she says. “During a really smoky summer, I do feel it in my eyes and lungs. I become a lot more sedentary during really smoky times. I use eyedrops to help there, but there isn’t much I can do about my lungs.”

When there isn’t a fire, though, Samsara has a lot of time to think. Beat writer Jack Kerouac, who worked as a lookout in Washington state in 1956, hoped the outpost would give him a respite from the drink, drugs and cigarettes that fueled his hedonistic life. But coming face to face with his sober self on Desolation Peak was rough. “Many’s the time I thought I die, suspire of boredom, or jump off the mountain, but the days, nay the hours dragged and I had no guts for such a leap,” he wrote in the semi-autobiographical novel “Desolation Angels.”

Samsara has never suffered those extremes. But it was during her 2002 summer at the lookout, after a difficult romantic breakup, that she says she truly learned to be comfortable being single. After that, she avoided relationships that wouldn’t work with her spending a quarter of the year alone atop a mountain. Her sheer desire to be a lookout often intimidated suitors. Some, puzzled, asked who chopped her firewood.

“I chop my own firewood,” Samsara says. She has three axes and seven saws.

 

Folds and fires

Back at base in West Yellowstone, under the gaze of a stuffed deer head, Mark counts the folds of an orange parachute. A mistake could be fatal. But Mark, a quiet man with pale blue eyes, doesn’t tolerate anything but full focus. If he notices his mind drifting, he takes a break. He’ll start all over again if he needs to.

Raised in Montana by a smokejumper father, Mark never doubted he’d end up working with nature. “My sister always stayed inside and read books. I made forts,” he says.

Mark worked as a wildland firefighter for three years before applying to become a smokejumper in 1998. The test? Completing seven pull-ups, 45 sit-ups and 25 push-ups, before running 1.5 miles in under 11 minutes. He passed, and shortly thereafter became a permanent seasonal employee of the Forest Service.

Smokejumpers are also known for their emotional calm and mental alertness. “If you’re easily excitable, you’re probably more prone to make mistakes during your initial parachute training,” says West Yellowstone base manager Knute Olson.

A simple gray building adjacent to the tiny local airport, the West Yellowstone base has a locker area, a large cargo room and a roughly 40-foot-tall room where parachutes are hung to dry and checked for damage. The base also has more than a dozen sewing machines: Although parachutes are purchased, Mark and his colleagues sew their own jumpsuits out of puncture-resistant Kevlar. Completing their jump outfits are gloves, hard pads around their shoulders and elbows, and a mask to protect their faces from branches and brush.

During rare idle moments, Mark and his colleagues play with a handful of skateboards beside the landing strip. And for years, the base has used the William Tell Overture as its alarm instead of a more strident siren. A colleague also uses the Gioachino Rossini composition as a ringtone. “It makes me jump every time,” Mark says with a smile.

Mark’s first firefighting jump, in 1998, was a hard one. He landed on a Wyoming mountain at over 10,000 feet, where there was still snow, and hiked down the steep slope toward the blaze to dig the fire line around it. The team contained the fire on the first day, he says, and then hiked back up to collect its discarded jumping equipment. “I remember just being in awe that this was what I was doing.”

Since then, he’s completed more than 100 fire jumps. At his peak, he jumped into 16 fires a season. Because he now also works as a spotter – the person aboard a plane who coordinates firefighting efforts and helps determine the best jumping spot – he does fewer fire jumps, around four to six a season.

“Every jump is a little different,” he says, citing the wind and the varying landing spots. “I really like the little meadows in the wilderness.”

When he jumps, he straps on a main parachute and a backup. Boxes containing two axes designed for fighting blazes, two sleeping bags, food and water also get dropped, often closer to the fire. The contents are designed to provide two firefighters with three days of self-sufficiency. The smokejumpers set up camp in a safe spot, usually upwind of the fire, and only go to bed if they feel comfortable. If they don’t, they’ll take shifts battling the fire.

By early August, the West Yellowstone base had already tackled 17 fires, above its 10-year average of 10 to 15 fires, according to base manager Olson.

Compounding a difficult year, the team suffered when, in June, 36-year-old colleague Tim Hart died after jumping into a fire in New Mexico. Mark attended the funeral in Hart’s native Wyoming. “It was hard,” he says softly. The base’s American flag still flies at half-staff in Hart’s honor.

Burnout, Olson says, is something the group talks about all the time.

As of July, smokejumpers get three days off after every two-week rotation; before, they got just two days. But with so many fires blazing, Olson says his employees feel guilty about taking a break.

There is an urgent need for more firefighters, he says. Nationally, the federal firefighting force is roughly 25% below required staffing levels, according to estimates by the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an association that advocates for firefighters. The low pay, harsh conditions and danger keep applicants away. In June, President Joe Biden said that salaries for federal firefighters, some of whom earned as little as $13 per hour, were “ridiculously low” and mandated a $15-per-hour minimum wage for the year. Mark declined to comment on his annual salary.

The Forest Service told Reuters there were “recruitment challenges” in some areas, including California, where salaries offered by state, local and private fire organizations have surpassed federal wages. “Recently, the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior took the first step towards making wages more competitive in those areas by offering new pay initiatives,” the Forest Service added.

“Fires are staffed minimally with just enough folks to basically keep them out of towns,” Olson says. “You’re not necessarily putting these fires out.”

The Forest Service told Reuters it had to set priorities. “With so many ignitions, we don’t always have the resources to suppress them all at once,” the Forest Service said, adding that it prioritizes combating blazes that are threatening communities.

When he was younger, Mark says, he’d try to work the entire summer without days off. But as he’s matured and the season has lengthened, he’s become better at taking time out. He has yet to decide whether he wants to continue working until he turns 57, the retirement age for federal firefighters.

Most of the time, he says, he’d like to keep going. “But some days,” he adds, “I would like to retire and spend more time with Sam.”

Late-night talks and pressed flowers

It was during the end of a cold Montana winter, when fires were briefly not a worry for them, that Samsara and Mark met.

It was early 2012, and Samsara had decided she wanted to take a class about information-sharing to enhance her work as an outdoors education teacher. She was only free in March, though, when the class was offered in West Yellowstone, some four hours away from her home in Helena. She signed up and asked to stay at the jump base’s dormitories.

Mark was in the office when she checked in. They quickly established that they knew a lot of the same people, including a former smokejumper who worked in the same office space as Samsara in Helena. “She was trying to get some stories on him to tease him,” Mark recalled.

When she checked out, they chatted even more. Samsara went back to Helena, but liked him enough to buy a cell phone so that they could stay in touch. They started texting. Soon they were talking on the phone almost every night. They were amazed at how much they had in common – a solitary nature, a passion for the outdoors, and a long-standing entanglement with fire.

Mark’s guestbook message, written in neat blue ink after a July visit to the lookout that year, simply says: “Best weekend of the summer.”

They agreed they would never ask the other to stop fire work. Their arrangement sometimes baffles people. “It used to be, ‘How are you ever going to get a boyfriend being up here?'” Samsara says. “Now it’s, ‘What does your husband think?'”

But Mark’s disapproval only extended as far as furniture: He told Samsara she needed more than one chair at the lookout. So he built four fold-out wooden ones, two of which are now in the lookout. They met each other’s dogs and went on camping trips. They had many mutual friends in the fire community, but no other lookout-smokejumper couple.

In May 2015, they got married in a civil ceremony in Helena. There was no guest list; it was just the two of them. About a week later, Mark was sent on a fire. After the wedding, Samsara moved to West Yellowstone.

During the summers, they go for several weeks without seeing each other. For years, they sent each other letters because she didn’t have a signal at the lookout. During deployments, Mark carried paper, envelopes and stamps with him. His letters, in which he often slipped pressed flowers, were sent to a Forest Service office and tucked in with the mule pack that resupplies Samsara with food. Hikers would mail her responses. Now that Samsara has intermittent cell signal, they send fewer letters.

But even when Samsara’s signal drops for a long time or Mark is incommunicado, they feel connected through the natural world, she says. “No matter where he is, he’s watching the same moon and the same sun.”

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