She practices her violin for upcoming performances with the White Mountain Symphony Orchestra while watching for smoke from 31 feet.
She occasionally spots a turquoise feathered Lazuli Bunting while scanning the horizon for flames.
It is believed that her grandfather was the first fire warden in Arizona, stationed at the Woody Mountain stand near Flagstaff in 1910.
For the past 30 summers, with the exception of the summer after the birth of her daughter, Janie Croxen Ringleberg has called the Springerville Interagency Dispatch Center at 0800 before starting her shift as one of the few remaining paid firehouse employees. According to the Forest Fire Lookout Association, Arizona had 120 active lookouts at any given time. As of 2011, only 77 towers remained standing and 58 were last known to be manned by temporary workers or volunteers.
Ringleberg has seen, perhaps as well as anyone, how climate change, drought, and historic firefighting have exacerbated wildfires and transformed Arizona’s alpine forests. To accompany a series of stories marking the 20th anniversary of the Rodeo Chediski Fire, which was the most devastating in state history at the time and a disaster that etched itself in the minds of many White Mountain residents, spoke The Arizona Republic with her about it.
She shared her love of the forest, her wisdom from the tower, and her fears for the future.
At the wildfire station:The life of a fire warden at 40 feet diligently searching for smoke
Ms. Ringleberg, what made you decide to spend your days scanning the horizon for smoke?
What inspired me was, I am, I guess, what you would call a third generation lookout. My grandfather, Fred Croxen, was a lookout. He said he was the first Forest Service lookout in Arizona. That was around 1916. He wanted to serve the country during the First World War. But the Forest Service was a new agency, and he was an officer they wanted out here to help take care of the timber resources. I think he really only did it for a year, but then he became a forest district ranger here and there all over Arizona. My father didn’t make a career as a lookout either. But he did spend an occasional summer in the (Santa) Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
I just grew up on forest service stories. So I studied wildlife ecology at the University of Arizona. And then it made sense for me to apply to the forestry office. My freshman year out of college I was hired as a firefighter. And while I was there, it wasn’t long before I met the love of my life, my husband Joe. Some of our conversations revolved around putting out fires. So we got married and he got his degree in forestry and I followed him in his career.
I didn’t always work on the observation tower, I also did a lot of field work. But the lady in charge of the lookout towers had to fill a vacancy for someone who had left. That’s how she found out in conversation with Joe that I had Lookout experience. And so she said would you like to come to work? And the rest is history. I went to work and I’ve been here ever since.
20 years later:They survived the “terrible” Rodeo Chediski fire and found a way out of the grief
What does a typical day look like for you up there?
I’ll call the dispatcher office in Springerville at 0800. Then all the viewpoints on the Mogollon Rim go into service in the morning. Since May 8th (this year) I have been working six days a week, 10-hour days, from 08.00 to 18.30. Normally we get enough rain from just after July 4th. So I guess we’ll get a little breather up here.
Eight to nine in the morning is my birding time. That seems to be the case when the mountaintop birds here are still active from the earlier cooler hours of the morning. This stationary platform is great for that, because I am at eye level with many of the birds that come to the summit and I like to look at them up close through binoculars.
Other impacts of climate change:Forests often regenerate after wildfires. Why the climate crisis could change that
During the morning I like to do different craft projects, mainly cross stitch or embroidery. Then I’ll be off duty for half an hour at noon and get out of here. I like to walk 15 minutes down from the tower and then back up. This kind of transition into the day makes the afternoon start anew for me. The rest of the day is basically just catching up on my reading. I also pick up my violin every once in a while and can practice while glancing around to make sure I’m up to date with what’s happening in the landscape around me.
I don’t read much on windy days. I watch closely most of the time, almost like I’m staring at a TV screen all day, because a little something that goes wrong when a strong wind blows it forward would only be bad news. Really bad news.
Your role also has an educational component, right?
Yes, another aspect of my job is welcoming tower visitors. I enjoy having them because everyone is interesting, everyone comes from a different walk of life. I get over 1,000 visitors up here every season. My tower is 11 by 11 (feet) so there is room for visitors and it’s only 31 feet off the ground so that’s not too intimidating for a lot of people.
They often raise grandchildren or their children, and I have a little program up here called the Smokey Bear Springer Mountain Kid Club. There I explain the importance of fire safety to the children. Of course, the adults listen too. I have a little model of a campfire that I pull out and we pretend to roast marshmallows and hot dogs and then I tell them it’s important to have enough water and a shovel to drown the fire to stir the fire and then feel the fire. I tell the kids, “Don’t forget to leave Smokey a hot dog or a marshmallow.” But what he really wants most is to find a mud pie by the campfire.
Then, with parental permission, I take a picture of the kids and have them hold a little Smokey Bear figurine, kind of like the Oscar characters. I have dozens of children’s photos on the walls here (in the tower) smiling and enjoying themselves.
Rodeo Chediski:Fire devastated the Arizona forests. How have they changed in the last 20 years?
How has the forest around Pinetop changed in your 30 years at Springer Mountain Lookout?
What happened historically was that the ponderosa pine forest was fire resistant as long as the fires were cooler. They say that every hectare of Ponderosa Forest burned down every 15 years on average. And that was frequent enough for the accumulated branches and the grasses under the trees to be burned in cooler fires not hot enough to scorch all the way up the tree, then into the crown and during one to blow storm from crown to crown.
Then firefighting became the goal. These canopy densities in the forest (became) so dense that the wind just blows the fire and flames from canopy to canopy, morning after morning.
Now it seems our rangelands and our forests across the state are working under the goal of restoration. Because we have recognized that the historical forest is a healthy forest. There was very little dog hair thickets and it had a much lower crown density per acre. It was a forest that would be able to sustain itself and not burn up.
It seemed like the scales tipped for us in Arizona around 1990. That’s when we encountered our first fire, it was called the Dude Fire. It burned 28,400 acres and burned 56 homes and six firefighters also died in this fire. That was the start of wildfires that covered more than 20,000 acres. And that was the beginning of what we call Megafire.
You’ve seen some of these mega fires from the tower. Has this sight changed the way you work?
Well, actually I haven’t changed my vigilance at all. I have the same level of vigilance now as I did 30 years ago. Even though the state forests have been thinned, that doesn’t necessarily mean the urban private lands around me are that different than they were 30 years ago. Unfortunately, there are still many acres of private land that is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago. So it’s just as necessary, maybe more so, when more people live up here, that I’m up here, because now I’m not just looking after the natural resource of the forest, but also the lives of the people.
Fire and Watershed:How thinning of dense forests in Arizona could protect water sources
How long do you plan to man Springer Mountain Lookout?
I have two grandchildren who will be growing up to fun ages. I want to be retired during the summers during this precious time of her childhood so that I can visit her more often.
It will be emotional for me to give that up. I want it to continue. There is probably someone out there who will do this for me. And that’s wonderful because I want this tower to be enjoyed and used by the public and continue to be a service at this urban intersection.
That’s my big hope that someone will come along who has as much interest in it as I’ve had over the years.
Joan Meiners is a climate news and storytelling reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a Ph.D. in ecology. consequences Joan on Twitter at @beewheels or email her at email@example.com.