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Four months a year, she scouts fires from a mountaintop. Here’s what her job is like

Samsara Duffey, a fire lookout with the forest service for 25 years, explains how she keeps her antenna up and stress level down.

Four months a year, she scouts fires from a mountaintop. Here’s what her job is like
[Illustration: German Gonzalez]

Our lookout season in Montana starts in late June, early July, and runs through September. Before that, I’m prepping to go to the lookout where I’ve lived for close to 25 seasons, and training other lookouts. The rest of the year, I work as a substitute teacher in West Yellowstone, and I drive a snow coach [a minibus with giant tires] and give tours of Yellowstone National Park.

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Once we go to the lookouts, we work independently. I wake up and take check-ins over the radio with trail crews, recreation guards, and Great Falls Interagency Dispatch. Then I survey the landscape, looking for fires. When I turn in a “fire start,” I stand by to assist the engine or hand crews, helicopter crews, or smoke jumpers—suggesting routes to the smoke, sharing changes in the fire activity, or providing weather observations. I called in a fire in July, located in a different national forest. Within about 10 minutes, the foreman texted me to learn if the crew would be able to jump. I told him that there was a lightning storm over the “start,” and the crew would not be able to. They got on the ground and suppressed the fire the following day.

[Most days], I knit or do things that I can drop in a heartbeat to answer the radio. Around 4:30 p.m., the radio is still on, but in my head I kind of turn it off. If it’s nice, I go outside and listen to the birds or pick up a book. If I’m baking bread, that’s about the time I put it in the oven. Then that’s my dinner: bread with butter and honey on it.

Most of the summer, I may only sleep under a sheet. But I’ve also seen chest-high snowdrifts. You have to be prepared for anything, and you have to fit it all in two drawers under your bed. I hate to acknowledge it, but I do personalize the space. I take my own sheets, a down comforter, and a quilt I made. A friend of mine is a potter, and I have some of her dishes there too. It’s a comfort thing.

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One night years ago, I heard radio traffic at 10 p.m. A woman had been kicked by her horse, and she ended up dying. It was an awful situation. Because of where I’m located, I was on the radio most of the night. We have work-rest requirements in the fire world, so the next day, when I went off the clock, I walked to a meadow about a mile from my lookout. There’s a spring there, gorgeous flowers, birds. I lay in the grass, and I spent all day down in the meadow, disconnecting from the work.

Time she wakes up

Sunrise.

First thing she does in the morning

“I’ll have a cup of decaf coffee, and then radio check-ins start around 7 a.m.”

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What’s on her desk that keeps her focused

“In the middle of the lookout is what’s called an Osborne Fire Finder. It’s a tool we use with other lookouts to triangulate a good fix on where we’re seeing fire. My Forest Service two-way radio sits on my worktable there, along with my radio log.”

Work-from-home hacks

“I have pants that are like sweatpants, but they’re made of down. They’re puffy, but it doesn’t matter what they look like.”

Best habit

“I keep a very detailed radio log. Every day when I’m on the clock, I get up and I start my radio log with the date and the day of the week. When you’re living according to a circadian rhythm, it’s really easy to forget what day of the week it is and to lose track of that kind of time.”

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Worst habit

“I can get totally obsessed with crosswords or Sudoku or word games. There’ve been some summers where I dreamt of crossword grids.”

Last thing she does at night

“I’ll listen to a history podcast or what I call a comfort book, like The Hobbit or Pride and Prejudice. I turn it down low and I go outside for a last look around, then I brush my teeth and climb in bed with my dog. I snuggle with her until we both fall asleep, watching the sunset, watching the stars come out, watching the moonrise.”

Time she goes to bed

Sunset.

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Read more about the secrets of this year’s most productive people.

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