Wildfire season bears down with July and a Baltimore County man has revived a tradition of the Pacific Northwest to defend his cattle ranch in Oregon. Tim Roberts hired Maryland cabinetmakers to replicate a 1930s fire lookout tower. He trucked the cabin across country. Now he's raising it four stories by crane to spot smoke and look mountaintops in the eye.

Summer lightning knifes the forests in the dry wilderness of Northeast Oregon. It smolders in roots for hours, days, a week — then pops: a flame.

In the Pacific Northwest, wildfire season bears down in July. Now a Baltimore County man who owns a cattle ranch in Oregon has revived a bygone tradition to defend his property.


Tim Roberts, who lives in Sparks, hired Maryland cabinetmakers to build a replica 1930s fire lookout tower. He hauled the cabin across the country in a 26-foot Penske truck. Now he's raising it four stories by crane, to look mountaintops in the eye and spot smoke.

"When you light a match, the fire's almost doubling in size every second," said Roberts, 49. "So the quicker you can get on the smoke, it's a big deal."

Lightning burned nearly 70,000 acres of state-protected land in Oregon last summer, enough to consume Baltimore. The past three summers made one of the worst three-year runs on record, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. More than 2 million acres of state and federal lands burned.

Amid wildfire country sits Wallowa County, "land of winding waters." It's larger than Rhode Island and doesn't have a single traffic light.

Hells Canyon, deep enough to swallow the Empire State Building, cuts the landscape east of Roberts' ranch. The unspoiled Zumwalt Prairie stretches to his southwest.

"Remember 'The Andy Griffith Show'?" Roberts asked. "We tried to find a place that would resist development for 10 generations."

His family bought the 12,000-acre Fence Creek Ranch about a decade ago. Summers, they return — Tim, his wife, Nancy, and their children, 15-year-old Will and 12-year-old Laura — to ride horses and river rapids and to drive cattle.

Roberts has worked for AmeriCorps and the Maryland Park Service. He manages the family properties now.

Nancy's family owns farms in Virginia and Maryland, including Worthington Farms, home of the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase race.

"Being from the East Coast, you don't realize the threat of dry lightning," she said.

After a strike, days may pass before the embers, like discarded cigarettes, catch and run.

"The longest holdover that I've heard, I think we had 20, 21 days after the storm," Tim Roberts said.

He formed the Fence Creek crew, some ranch hands turned firefighters in summer — men equipped with certification and a Ford F-550 with a 400 gallon tank. Contracted by Oregon's Department of Forestry, the crew often arrives first at a rural blaze to cut containment lines.

"A lot of times, they're probably an hour or more ahead of our engine," said Matt Howard, a state forester in Wallowa County. "This isn't a hillbilly outfit. This is a professional crew that takes its training seriously."


Now the crew prepares for another fierce summer, but with a new tool to defend the prairie and town of Imnaha. On a remote ridge, a spine of land between prairie grass and matchstick timber, Tim Roberts and workers are raising a steel tower. Soon, they'll hoist a cabin with 19 handmade windows.

They're behind schedule, and hurrying.

The fires are coming.

'We don't know what normal is anymore'

A prairie wildfire can outrun a man. The grass-fed flames can rise above his head. Old timber, meanwhile, may burn for a week. "Hundred-hour fuel," Tim Roberts calls it.

"You pour 4,000 gallons down a stump hole and it steams and you're coming back day after day after day," he said.

Roberts says misguided firefighting tactics a century ago have transformed the Pacific Northwest into a tinderbox — escalating the duration and intensity of wildfire seasons today.

It began after the "Big Blowup" of 1910, a series of fires that torched an area the size of Connecticut, killed at least 85 people and flung soot to Greenland.

"There was kind of a reaction: 'We got to protect these forests,'" Tim Roberts said. "Any time we saw smoke, we went and put it out. We've done that for the past 100 years. And what's happened now is we have a buildup of fuel in the forests."

The woods exploded in summer 2013, Oregon's worst wildfire season since the 1950s. Lightning ignited about 500 fires. More than 350,000 acres burned on state and federal lands.

In Southwest Oregon that summer, crews glimpsed the phenomenon of a fire whirl, a burning tornado lifting skyward smoke and flames and debris.

"Buildup is a big, big concern," said Keith Argow, a former ranger and forestry professor at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech.

Summer fires remain a persistent threat in Wallowa County. Flames once crept 300 yards from Sandy Vidan's bed and breakfast, the Imnaha River Inn, she said. Firefighters camped in her backyard. She patrolled her beds of snap dragons, lilies and tulips, amid a snowfall of burning cinder, and soaked the bark mulch.

"The flames and smoke and ash floating around," she said, "it can be quite scary."

In rugged Oregon, firefighters clear paths to pen the flames. There aren't hydrants on the prairie. Crews cut and hoe and dig the undergrowth, hour after hour, grueling work when fires advance on towns. Otherwise, remote burns are simply managed.

"We let it do its natural thing," Tim Roberts said. "When it squeaks out to one side, then you look like an idiot for letting it burn for two months. But what you're trying to do is undo the unnatural process that we did for the last 100 years."

Worse than 2013 was the next summer. Drought and warming temperatures dried the landscape. Nearly one million acres burned in what Oregon officials called an "endless season."

"We don't know what normal is anymore," said Rod Nichols, spokesman for Oregon's Department of Forestry. "But we hope we can return to something that's a little less intense."

The endless season of 2014 saw fire drive within a mile of Imnaha. The Fence Creek Ranch crew hurried to the flames, the La Grande Observer newspaper reported.

"They quickly jumped to the task at hand and for the first 36 hours straight, adrenaline no doubt pumping, battled the raging blaze and saved lives and property," the newspaper wrote.

Then last summer, 630 acres burned in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, east of town.

"It's a fire-prone ecosystem," said Howard, the forester. "This lookout that Tim's building is in a critical piece of ground for us."

'Treasure piece'

In the summer of 1956, a young Jack Kerouac bunked two months in a fire tower atop the North Cascades and observed "the lightning yellowdances over ridges."

Since early lookouts went up a century ago, the fire tower has enchanted writers such as Kerouac and Norman Maclean with its solitude and vantage of the American grandeur.

"Maybe it's just the form of the clouds, the way they move in," said Ray Kresek, founder of the Fire Lookout Museum in Spokane, Wash. "It's one of those things that get in your blood."

Tim Roberts' ambition to build the cabin, to haul it across country and raise it on a ridge, dwells in his desire to preserve this romance.


During the Great Depression, relief workers built thousands of lookouts. The Big Blowup had elevated firefighting into a federal priority. In Maryland, where humidity lessens the threat, 34 towers were staffed in the early 1940s.

A network of more than 8,000 lookouts once connected the United States, said Argow, the professor and chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association.

It was rugged life, summers in a lookout without running water or refrigeration.

"Bury fresh vegetables in wax paper," advises a Forest Service recipe book. To preserve meat, "put in a burlap sack during the day and put between blankets and mattress."

Now the network has been mostly dismantled. Some 2,000 towers remain, Agrow said; 700 are staffed.

Maryland's towers stand empty. Some are outfitted with radio antennas used by the Department of Natural Resources. Other states have replaced lookout rangers with cameras and satellite lightning trackers.

"The dispatch center can watch little dots start appearing over the map of Oregon," said Nichols, of the Department of Forestry. "It's instantaneous."

But wild Wallowa County still depends on a discerning eye. There, federal rangers staff two towers and a third stands near the border.

"A lookout can radio a description of the smoke, the weather and threat," Howard said. "That's all super critical."

Kresek, at the museum, sent Tim Roberts blueprints for the 1930s Forest Service cabin. He said it's Roberts' "treasure piece."

Built by Hubbard Cabinetmakers of Butler from sturdy, old-growth Douglas fir, the cabin measures 14 by 14 feet. The windows have 76 glazed panes. The modern screws are hidden. The shutters' antique hinges are refinished.

Roberts reached Oregon in June with his cabin. Come late July, his family and friends will take shifts to watch for sleepers.

The project won't be inexpensive: Building, trucking, raising the lookout could total $50,000, Tim Roberts said.

"I'd rather build a fire tower than drive a nice car, you know?" he said. "It's another insurance policy."

Unnoticed, wildfire could scorch his ranch, or scar the prairie and endanger the nostalgic town that charmed him.

Elsewhere, the threat has already emerged. Wildfire burned 67 square acres of an eastern Arizona Indian reservation. Flames razed 24 homes in central New Mexico. Flames swept the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California, killing two people and burning 200 homes. In May, tens of thousands fled the fire-ravaged Canadian city of Fort McMurray.

Meanwhile, Tim Roberts and the craftsmen are pouring concrete and raising a steel tower. He plans to hoist the cabin this month.

A squall blew through his ranch two weeks ago. Afterward, back on the ridge, fitting windows, Tim Roberts glanced out.

Smoke to the west.