Phantom Fire

Deep Investigation Into a Strange Sight

By F.A. Loomis

But might it not be possible for something to happen that threw me entirely off the rails? Evidence that made the most certain thing unacceptable to me? Or at any rate made me throw over my most fundamental judgments? (Whether rightly or wrongly is beside the point.) — Ludwig Wittgenstein

It happened in the summer of 1976, the event that “threw me entirely off the rails.” I had taken a summer job as a U.S. Forest Service employee near central Idaho’s primitive area. I was paid to watch for forest fires from a rocky pinnacle several thousand feet above the wild South Fork of the Salmon River. The lookout was Pilot Peak in the Payette National Forest near Warren, not to be confused with Pilot Peak in the Boise National Forest.

Six or seven days after I arrived at my post by helicopter in July, I was trying to fall asleep next to a glass wall in the lookout tower. Frustrated with sleeplessness at two a.m., I opened my eyes and scanned the outline of black mountains around me. The skies were cloudy, but the cloud ceiling was high enough for me to see ridge tops up to thirty miles away. Almost immediately, my eyes fell on a bright orange triangle near the crest of a mountain to the southwest.

Stunned by what I saw, I leaped from my bunk, pulled on pants and a coat, laced my boots, and dug a flashlight out of a drawer, all the while glancing at what I perceived to be a forest fire. I slapped my face, splashed cold water into my eyes and down my cheeks, and then walked out onto the catwalk with the binoculars.

Sure enough, through the lenses I could see a patch of flame and a couple of huge trees crowning out with fire. Breathing heavily, I went back inside, made some azimuth-based calculations with my fire-finder, and filled out a fire report. Then I leaned my shoulder against the window, eyes on the fire, and radioed data to the closest fire station, fifteen air miles away. After reporting everything and knowing the fire crews were being awakened and prepared to leave base by helicopter at dawn, I stood back and watched the fire that I estimated to be two to four acres in size.

I watched for twenty-five minutes while retaining radio contact with another lookout upriver that was in the same vicinity as the fire. This lookout could still see no indication of a fire where I had reported it. Shortly, I called the fire station to report that the flames seemed to be receding. Within forty minutes after I spotted the flames, they disappeared altogether. Perplexity set in. What I had assumed was a two- to four-acre fire was now nothing, and I had been the only person in the entire national forest to report it. A two- to four-acre fire does not ordinarily cease to exist after only forty minutes.

When I reported that the fire had gone cold, the fire station guard said perhaps mist was blocking my vision. I was assured that at dawn I would at least see a pillar of smoke in the original fire location. When and if I did, I was to recalculate the intersection before calling the smoke in again. At dawn, however, there was still nothing: no smoke, no flames, and no charred terrain on the ridge, which was about six air miles away.

My supervisors, I later discovered, began circulating backbiting jokes around the district about “the Pilot Peak phantom fire.” For several days, the central fire command sent airplanes full of smokejumpers to scan the area where I had reported flames. Helicopters full of hotshot crews flew lazy circles around the area for nearly a week, desperate for a fire in a slow-starting season. But no fire or trace of one was spotted.

When a child learns language, it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not. When it learns that there is a cupboard in the room, it isn’t taught to doubt whether what it sees later on is still a cupboard or only a kind of stage set.
—Wittgenstein

As a boy, I learned about fire when our farm’s huge granary south of Donnelly burned down. When Donnelly’s auto company warehouse burned down, I assumed it, too, was a fire. Afterwards I walked through rows of ash-covered automobiles. When the post office burned, I assumed a fire. Similarly, I assumed fire when the general store burned down, when the hotel burned down, and when a neighbor’s house burned to the ground. In every instance, I watched curiously but without question. Since continuity of experience is an important factor in a child’s growth, I think I was very healthy: I consistently saw real fires. And there was no confusion for me about whether I was seeing fire, for everyone else in town stood before these same phenomena and made comments to one another and to me about smoke and flames and charred ruin.

With respect to the forest fire, however, I was the only person to have witnessed it, and it had not behaved normally. It went out too quickly. I began doubting whether I had even seen a fire that night, whether I had seen bright orange-white light or trees aflame. The fire seemed to have been there, but it made sense to doubt that it had been. There were, in other words, grounds for my doubting, because of generally observed fire behavior and a lack of corroborating evidence.

To preserve my sense of good perceptive abilities, which I now questioned, my response was to map out the possibilities of what had brought about the fire incident. At the onslaught of doubt, I looked closer at everything. Perhaps I had experienced an optical illusion? But two a.m. is too late for a sunset and too early for a sunrise, so any sunlight was not present unless an object in space had reflected great, focused quantities of sunlight to the earth. This did not seem likely. I checked my stove to see if a few hot coals had shown through a crack in the metal and onto a reflecting window. By playing with the air vents in the stove with this possibility in mind, I concluded it could happen, but in this case, it had not. On the night of the fire, the stove had been completely cold by ten p.m. at the latest. And I had seen the forest fire clearly with binoculars from the catwalk outside the lookout’s glass walls.

Had I been sleepwalking? I had sustained conversation by radio for three or four periods of up to five minutes per conversation. I could remember everything that happened during the forty minutes of observing the fire, including slapping myself and splashing water in my face. No one has ever hinted that I have a history of somnambulating, and neither was this likely a dream, for there was no point when I woke up. If it were a dream, then I am probably still dreaming.

Perhaps I was experiencing a vision of something to come, or a theophany (God knows if I had read too much metaphysics by twenty-four years of age), but I didn’t consider myself a visionary, channeler, or specially-chosen person. Even so, I reread Old Testament passages of God touching down on mountaintops as a fiery presence, but that night I heard no voice, and the earth did not tremble.

Perhaps it had been a flashback of something primeval or historical? Again, although I admire some of Jung’s insights into the collective unconscious, this was not very likely, for there was nothing which struck me as uncanny or awesome about the episode while it was happening; only in retrospect did it seem strange. Perhaps a hallucination? I had wanted to see a forest fire so badly and was so afraid that I would miss seeing one if one were there that I did see one? Perhaps. A nervous breakdown? The problem with this possible solution is that a nervous breakdown can be defined in infinitely varying degrees, and no one ever agrees on the stages. How mild or how severe a case could this have been? Should I still be seeing a psychiatrist about it? Should I still be on medication? Who is really to say? Nor had I been drinking, and I didn’t use drugs.

Another explanation was that this was a fire indeed, but not an ordinary one. St. Elmo’s Fire? It’s uncommon in the northwest, as are patterns from the Aurora Borealis that can flash rarely all the way south to Idaho. Was it a plane crash? Only subsequent events could prove this possibility. It may also have been that my location of the fire was not accurate enough to guide a search party with precision. Or perhaps it was the phenomenon known as a “sleeper fire” that flares up, then goes back underground, or smolders in the brush for long periods before discovery?

These were the possibilities that I found it necessary to catalog as a first step to preserving my peace of mind.

Imagine we had to arrange the books of a library. When we begin the books lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor. Now there would be many ways of sorting them and putting them in their places . . . The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E.g., to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places.
—Wittgenstein

There were later developments that helped me see more clearly into what might have happened. They also gave me insight about the reliability of my faculties. For instance, the following night, as I was eating a plate of pasta drenched in butter and olive oil, another lookout upriver claimed to see a flicker of light from the direction of my phantom fire. While I also thought I had seen the same flickering, I did not communicate it to the other lookout. I was cautious not to admit to seeing something that might not really be there. My self-trust was very low. I did not believe my own eyes, which is not to say I did not gain a tiny bit of relief knowing that another lookout claimed to see something.

One week later, I spotted a column of smoke one mile from my lookout tower, a different fire, but only reluctantly turned it in to fire control after observing it for nearly an hour, much longer than normal. While a lookout’s job is to report instantaneously, I could not bring myself to do it. I watched the fire burn up an acre of buckbrush and pine trees before I got on the radio. When I did finally turn it in, I seriously expected that I might be fired if no one else could find it. Although a smokejumper aircraft then circled the smoke for thirty minutes, I was not convinced the fire was actually there until I heard fire confirmation over the radio and saw with my own eyes two smokejumpers descending to the fire by parachute. It was a beautiful sight. I had my reason back for a while.

Several weeks later, an experienced ex-lookout told me that firelight at night always looks larger than in the day. I began to wonder if what I had seen had really been just a campfire. A year later, I was still a lookout and turned in smoke that looked like it was two to six miles away, when, in fact, it was twenty-eight miles away. Yet another fire that appeared twenty miles away turned out to be seventy miles away. My understanding and experience, in any case, were growing. I had begun to see grave limitations to my physical vision and fire-spotting instruments.

I also heard stories about a fire on the forest that burned underground all winter in a root system. It burned through a mountain razorback, coming out on the other side of the mountain to start another forest fire ten months later, during the next fire season. I learned that many fires in Minnesota burn year-round because of peat bogs.

One old Northwest lookout reminisced with me how one night he had seen a meteorite illuminate an entire valley with a bright emerald hue. Another described what could have been a couple of UFOs or military helicopters at some distance in the night, moving up and down along a ridge. Later that summer, I saw a bright, silver flying saucer, which—after watching with binoculars for several minutes—I discovered to be a small plane flying at a steep angle under the sun. A “flying saucer” was a perfect description for what I first saw.

My discussions with people about fires multiplied. An ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot revealed the many ways a light plane can get lost permanently in high bush country, how certain amounts of fuel can keep wreckage burning for long or short periods of time, how high-impact crashes in rocks can never be spotted by air rescue parties, how slack FAA records are with respect to flight plans, etc. A former Navy officer told me tales of sightings of strange lights at night from watches on ships, the nature or origin of which often went unverified. All of this gave me a better picture of my situation. I felt less alone.

Two months after the incident—after I had closed down the lookout—I woke up to my nephews bouncing on my bed in Portland. They were holding The Portland Oregonian. “Look Uncle!” they exclaimed, holding up the newspaper. A headline on the front page read: “Fire Burning Out of Control in Central Idaho.” I said to myself, “It’s about time they had some big fires over there this year.” On the whole, it had been a slow fire season. Reading further, I discovered that the fire was in the vicinity where I had been all summer, along the steep breaks above the South Fork of the Salmon River. Curious, I called the regional Forest Service offices. From the teletype in Portland, they read to me the legal description of the thousand-acre fire’s location. The location—on Zena Creek—was roughly similar to the one I had turned in two months earlier as the phantom fire.

“My life shews that I know or am certain that there is a chair over there, or a door, and so on.—I tell a friend e.g. ‘Take that chair over there,’ ‘Shut the door,’ etc. etc.”

—Wittgenstein

My life shows that there may actually have been a fire on that black ridge in July 1976. This understanding changed my behavior, made me take less in life for granted. The event was incorporated into how I act and react in general. For instance, I look up the street at twilight and see a figure walking. Before the fire incident, I might have said to my friend, “Look at that woman in the black skirt walking toward us.” After the incident, however, I wouldn’t speak immediately. I would wait. And when we were closer, I might see that it is not a woman at all, but a man walking a bushy black dog.

The fire event takes its place among similar experiences I have had: the time I fell through a loose plank under the straw floor of our barn; the time a staircase banister fell off the wall in my hand and I fell down to the landing; the time I was enjoying a midnight walk in the windy woods and a thick tree limb slammed me in the head and knocked me flat to the ground. All these incidents have instilled a sense of readiness, anticipation, expectation, and uncertainty. My reflexes are ready to test every situation. I have learned to expect anytime the possibility of something happening that may not be a normal occurrence or in common sequence.

My nephew asked, “May I take your picture, Uncle?” And before I answered, I asked myself, “Is that really a camera my nephew has?” The camera’s casing was rather old-fashioned. Then I recalled an old Marx Brothers film and thought this camera might not be a camera at all, but a squirt gun. I was wearing a new shirt. Sure enough, I noticed a suspicious-looking plug beside the shutter snap. “You rascal!” I shouted, as he shot me anyway.

Surprises, of course, come when one no longer can anticipate what might happen. I’m not out to eliminate surprises, but rather to prevent myself from getting into situations that might confuse me as badly as the fire did. I like surprise parties, and will probably be surprised if I am ever given one. But if someone were to, say, put a cadaver in my refrigerator, I do believe I am more ready to deal with it now than I previously would have been.

“Why would it be unthinkable that I should stay in the saddle however much the facts bucked?” —Wittgenstein

The fire incident jolted me throughout the following month, but I stayed with it, hung onto the facts I could gather. I developed empathy for skeptics. As I stayed in the saddle, I slowly gained awareness of several kinds. The first was that I am very egotistical. I do not like to be caught making mistakes or errors. Here I was in a situation that indicated I might be nutty. In the end, I did manage to hold onto some of my ego, although learning how arrogant I could be was a very good thing.

The second awareness was that other people’s opinions are important to my decisions. Not until I had spoken of this incident with numerous people did I gather enough data to determine all of what might have happened that July night. Gradually, I confirmed that I was not demented, that I am an ordinary person who, when alone, witnessed something extraordinary. The process of investigation gradually restored some of my self-confidence even while forcing me to listen to what other people had to say.

The third awareness was a better understanding of context. My context, in retrospect, was not my night sighting on the mountain during a forty-minute period. Rather, I was part of a larger context that I had barely begun to understand. This context included other lookouts on other mountains at other times, and their accounts of lookout life, the knowledge and lore of experienced bush and military pilots, the geology of the Salmon River Mountains, my own experiences with helicopters, my own psychological tendencies, etc.

In other words, the phenomenon, and what I had interpreted it to be, had seemed a total irregularity in the game I was in as a lookout. It seemed to me that there was no place in the game for what I had gone through. Only later did I see that the game was much larger than what I had originally imagined.

I have said to people: “As a Forest Service fire lookout I saw bright orange-white flames at two a.m. on a distant mountain. The flames disappeared after forty minutes and were never seen again.” But, depending on who I say this to, I add qualifiers. For example, to an inexperienced forester, I might add that this happens every once in a while in forest fire lookout work and that there are, of course, various explanations, blah, blah, blah.

On the other hand, I started telling my story once to an experienced forester who I thought would be intrigued, but he just smiled and said, “Hmmm . . . welcome to the club!” [/private]

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One Response to Phantom Fire

  1. Christine - Reply

    September 18, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    I’ve also seen phantom fires where I live, it was huge and bright, and I panicked and called my husband to tell him I was going to drive to it, but it vanished completely and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who saw it. I should have taken a picture. Next time I will.

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