I'm an editorial photographer in Charleston, South Carolina. I travel as much as possible, I have a darling dog named Dignan, and I enjoy thrift shopping, Netflixing and eating out. Long walks on the beach are just OK. 

Pay It Upward
 
 

Meet my friends and neighbors, Mike and Nadine Masiello. In the late 1960s, they were high school sweethearts on Long Island, NY. Now, after 45 years of being married, raising two boys and managing successful careers, they're retired.

But they're not tired.

Mike and Nadine have spent their early retirement years everywhere but on the couch: they've backpacked the Dalton Highway through Alaska to the Arctic Ocean; they've trekked across the Camino de Santiago in Spain; they've toured the U.S. via motorhome, stopping at several National Parks. Their latest journey, however, was inspired by more than just their love for adventure. It was inspired by gratitude.

In the fall of 2016, forest fires were wreaking havoc in the southeastern U.S., including the Party Rock Fire in western North Carolina, where the Masiellos now live. Though it burned more than 7,000 acres over three weeks, no structures were lost and very few injuries were sustained, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of firefighters, some of whom were flown in from all over the country to help.

Mike and Nadine decided that saying thank you wasn't enough. They were going to shout it from a mountaintop.

They started researching volunteer opportunities in fire towers as lookouts, and a few weeks later, they packed their car and drove from North Carolina to the panhandle of Idaho, where they spent their summer living at 5,000 feet, scanning the horizon for smoke and calling in sightings to firefighters on the ground at the Priest Lake Ranger Station. And here's one of the best parts: until they arrived in Idaho, Mike and Nadine had no idea that some of those very firefighters in Priest Lake had been flown out to North Carolina in the fall to fight the Party Rock Fire! Mike and Nadine's gratitude had not only reached great heights; it had come full circle.

I was so incredibly inspired when I heard how Mike and Nadine had chosen to spend their summer that I asked them if I could fly out to Idaho for a couple of days to document their experience in the tower. They very graciously welcomed my company (and that's no small thing for two people living in a 14'x14' room with no plumbing on top of a mountain). Here's what I saw...

 

 
 

When firefighters couldn't reach an area by vehicle because of the mountainous terrain, they dropped out of planes to get to the fire.

To reach the tower, Mike and Nadine drove 45 minutes up the mountain to the end of the road, then parked their vehicle and hiked nearly a mile up the rest of the way.

To reach the tower, Mike and Nadine drove 45 minutes up the mountain to the end of the road, then parked their vehicle and hiked nearly a mile up the rest of the way.

 
 
 
 

Mike does an early morning scan for smoke while Nadine makes coffee for us.

From their perch on Indian Mountain, Mike and Nadine could spot four other area fire towers through their binoculars, three of which were manned by other volunteers.

 

Sitting in the center of the room is an Osborne Fire Finder, an instrument that's been used by lookouts for more than 100 years to help find the exact location of a fire.

 
 
 

The mountaintop is covered in huckleberry bushes, referred to by locals as "purple gold." Huckleberries are a favorite snack of the bears in the area.

 

Using a belt weather kit, Mike and Nadine reported the weather every morning and evening. Knowing the humidity and wind conditions helped the firefighters know what to expect.

 
 

The "restroom."

It was tradition for lookouts to sign the outhouse wall. The earliest date we could find was 1968.

 
 
 

Having arrived with grand notions of learning how to play guitar in their spare time, Mike and Nadine say it was a busier fire season than usual, and they loved knowing that they were truly in service to the firefighters down at the station. 

Nadine says this detailed area map, drawn by a fellow lookout in 1984, was a lifesaver.

 
 
 

Mike and Nadine with the Idaho firefighters who helped fight the fire that threatened their community in North Carolina.

 
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