ON SADDLEBACK MOUNTAIN, California: Walk into Mike Gates’s summer home here and the first thing you notice the only thing you could possibly notice is the view.
With a wraparound vista broken only by the occasional hummingbird, Gates has 25-mile visibility on a decent day and more than twice that on a superlative one. The sunrises are pretty enough to make the cold worthwhile, and the sunsets would make a vampire sad to see the day go.
But Gates doesn’t really come to the top of Saddleback Mountain at the corner of 6,698 feet and the middle of nowhere to look at the horizon or the hummingbirds, at the sunrise or the sunset.
He comes to look for smoke.
For the last 21 years, Gates has been a fire lookout, a sky-high sentry at the front line in the battle against wildfires, which have burned more than five million drought-parched acres around the country this year. Armed with four pairs of binoculars, he spends almost every waking hour prowling a narrow catwalk outside his 14-foot-square shack, scanning the day and night for nature’s surest sign that something is ablaze.
Gates, now 58, has spotted perhaps 100 fires during his years on the job, two this September alone. He is known for staying up late, and waking before dawn to fix his eyes on his patch of Tahoe National Forest, a 1.2-million-acre preserve just north of Lake Tahoe.
“Maybe after looking at the same landscape for so long,” he said, “it’s easy to see something’s amiss.”
His is a skill set that is slowly fading away, replaced by less romantic, more technological methods. Only about 800 lookouts nationwide are now manned, according to the nonprofit Forest Fire Lookout Association, down from more than 8,000 in the 1930s.
While few people are suited for his line of work, Gates was perhaps destined for it. His birthday is the same date that Smokey Bear first appeared on a poster: Aug. 9. And much of his life, it seems, has involved watching at a distance, from his days in an Air Force reconnaissance unit to a lifelong obsession with photography.
“I just observe,” said Gates, who wears a gray goatee and glasses. “I’m a looker.”
That is an opinion shared by the one person who regularly breaks up Gates’s routine: Prairie Rose, a 52-year-old former disc jockey who came up for a visit 12 years ago and fell in love with the lookout, both the place and the man. Now she pays periodic visits during the summers.
“I love being on top of the world,” she said. “It’s my little piece of heaven.”
A former Chrysler electrical engineer who “unplugged” in the mid-1980s, Gates says he’s “not a real kind of social animal”; he values the pleasures of being alone. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Jack Kerouac, who spent a summer as a lookout in 1956, called the job a “mountaintop trap.”
True enough, it isn’t always thrilling work. Weeks can pass without a fire or a friendly face. And the nature of the lookout’s life basically living in a glass box means that leaving the office behind is impossible. “Even if I’m doing dishes,” Gates said, “I’m keeping my eyes open.”
But he seems to love it, combining his smoke-hunting with a passion for photography. (His photographs can be seen at www.pygmyhippo.net.)
To get to the Saddleback lookout, one travels back in time, road-wise, going from asphalt to dirt to a treacherous stone-filled path that acts as the lookout’s driveway. And then you hike. Up past an outhouse, up past the spot where rattlesnakes like to sun themselves and up two flights of metal stairs, until finally you find what may be the world’s coziest government building.
Built in 1933, Gates’s wooden shack sits on stilts and is held on a crag by steel cable. Inside are a child-size sink, a small stove and a set of pink flamingo-shaped Christmas lights over his platform bed. Not that sleep is always easy: winds on the mountain can gust up to 80 miles an hour, violently shaking the shack.
“You don’t have to put a quarter in the bed or anything,” he said. “It just goes.”
Nor is the place exactly insulated, as there are no walls per se, just 360 degrees of windows. Gates has resorted to tacking personal touches cartoons, maps, a photo of a woman’s eyes to the ceiling or support beams. There’s also a dirt-floored basement that houses a propane-powered refrigerator, as well as a set of car batteries, which store solar-generated power.
Gates keeps his most powerful binoculars next to his bed. For a lookout, red herrings abound: clouds of dirt from logging vehicles, for example, or “water dogs,” wisps of steam that rise, smokelike, from valley floors.
But it was a real fire that drew Gates’s attention on Sept. 10, when the most recent blaze erupted near Lindsey Lake, a popular area where several campsites and trail heads converge.
“I could start to pick up a little bit of a puff behind a ridge,” he recalled. “At first I wasn’t really sure, but you sense that something is not quite right. The smoke is a little bit thicker and that kind of thing.”
Within minutes he had calibrated the distance and called in the fast-moving blaze. Air tankers and ground crews flooded into the area and suppressed the fire after it had devoured a mere 21 acres.
This time of year, storms start to roll in, and fire season begins to wind down. Gates, who earns $13,400 for five months on the mountain, said he was already girding himself for a return to his winter home in Bradenton, Florida There, he and Prairie Rose care for his elderly mother, and curse the stoplights and traffic.
“The whole sky closes in, basically,” he said of his other life, looking out at low early-morning clouds. “It just takes a while, I guess, to adjust.”
Just then, the wind changed, and the fog seemed to lift. And then, so did Gates’s mood.