Two weeks ago, when Hurricane Ginny first jumped up at sea, foresters' spirits in Monongahela rose. There was little chance that the full hurricane would move across the mountain ridges, but there was the possibility that Ginny's long, spiraling, wet arms might reach across to caress the forest. The clouds came, the forest district just to the north got a trace of rain, then Ginny turned away. The indexes stayed up, the danger extreme. Hockinson had been hoping to get a weekend off so he could go home with his wife to Hollidaysburg, Pa.
From his 80-foot tower on Hopkins Mountain, Lookout Edgar Hull, whose voice often squawks cryptically on Forester Hockinson's mobile radio, can see his own house two beeline miles below him in the valley. But he has not been home since October first. If Hurricane Ginny had pushed the buildup index down he might have had an evening with his wife and daughters.
During the fire seasons—the six months of spring and fall—Edgar Hull lives in a 14-by-13 cabin at the foot of his tower. He spends most of each day in the tower and climbs back up the 112 steps three times each night for a look around. The Hopkins tower was built by the CCC in the '30s, but there is still a comfortably safe feel about it, except when winds gust more than 25 miles and the tower cabin begins to heave like a balloon gondola trying to lift off.
But Hull is a phlegmatic man, not the sort ever to be affected by the mere functional idiosyncrasies of a tower or even by his own isolation. Though physically alone, he is not lonely. As the dispatcher for his district of the forest, he is in radio contact with all the ground activity and also operates on the same frequency as most of the other lookout towers, federal and state, for 40 miles around. The long parallel ridges of the West Virginia mountains are herringboned with small draws and hollows, and a sharply defined zone defense against fire is impossible. A fire within five miles of one tower is often first seen by another far away.
The night after Hurricane Ginny backtracked, Hull's first business was to take a report from a warden on the eastern flank of the main Allegheny ridge, in the George Washington National Forest, where a passer-by claimed to have spotted a fire. Hull tried to pass the word on to Brushy Mountain, a tower astride the Virginia-West Virginia border. Failing there, he reported directly to a fire-control officer of the George Washington Forest. Hull never saw the faintest glow nor knew if there really was a fire. (There was. It raced up a slope, with 27 men hacking fire lanes on both flanks, holding it to 35 acres until it finally played out on a crest.)
In the morning on Hull's radio there is a spate of messages for the first hall hour as the ground crews and patrols report their locations and itineraries. Then a report crackles in from someone on the tower frequency: Hurricane Ginny has turned around and is coming in again. From Hull's tower it truly looks that way, the wind upping a little from the south and soft, high haze showing over the southeast rim of the mountains.
Ten minutes later Cottle Knob, a state tower, reports smoke at a heading of 67�. Red Oak tower passes the news on to the Sharp Knob tower. Sharp Knob reports that what Cottle Knob sees is the Webster City dump.
Hull's telephone rings. It is his father, who occupied this same tower for 11 years before him. The senior Hull has been watching the Today show on television and merely wants to cheer his son up. The Today show is predicting rain for West Virginia by Saturday. (Hooray.) Hull switches to the ground channel and advises all hands that things are "4-1" (no fires).
Then, 20 minutes later, just beyond a small spur ridge west of White Sulphur Springs, Hull sees a faint drift rising. He calls the fire tower on neighboring Brushy Mountain. "It's awful light smoke," Hull advises Brushy. "I'll check it," Brushy says. It turns out to be the cloud thrown up by a farmer spreading lime. Red Oak tower hails Mike's Knob. Red Oak is seeing smoke at a 300� heading. What does Mike's Knob think? "It's that new coal tipple," Mike's Knob says. "I didn't know there was a new coal tipple," Red Oak replies, sounding a trifle hurt for having been left in the dark. Later, about 10 miles southwest of Hopkins Mountain tower, smoke billows up, but Hull ignores it totally. It is the dump of the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs putting out more smoke than usual.
At 2:20 p.m. on a 221� heading over Bear Wallow Ridge, easily 10 miles away, Hull sees fire for sure, a tall column of smoke rising. He passes the word on to Paddy Knob. A light plane scouts it twice. It is still smoking away when the sun goes down, and Hull, the discoverer, has no way of knowing whether six men, a dozen or a hundred are over there battling it.