Musician Shane Turner finds creative spark in his work managing remote Alberta fire towers

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The first song Shane Turner wrote about his work was called Evacuation Day.

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He was inspired by a terrifying moment during his second season as a fire watcher in rural Alberta. He went about eight years ago and was stationed at Petitot Tower, a post in the northwest corner of the province. It was remote, to say the least. In fact, it was one of the most remote destinations in Alberta.

“There are no signs of life in any direction,” says Turner.

So when he first saw the fire, it wasn’t much of a concern. It only involved a couple of trees and was not near any roads, communities or resources.

“We let it burn, but then it started burning right at me,” says Turner, in an interview from the Barrier Lake overlook. “So I had to be evacuated. He was still relatively new and didn’t know what to do in this situation. It was like ‘When do I call them to get me out of here?’ The chorus was fun, I was just singing about ‘Do I still get paid?’ That was my concern. I didn’t want to push myself too fast.”

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He was eventually evacuated by helicopter. The episode prompted Turner to write Evacuation Day, a song that’s certainly more action-packed than your typical bland indie-folk number. It was the first spark of inspiration that would eventually lead to dozens of songs Turner would create as part of a project he calls Mountain Mansion, Songs from a Fire Tower. The five-album series was inspired by his experiences over the past nine years managing boreal forest overlooks and Rocky Mountain peaks. It is not a job for everyone. You are very lonely, often for months. There are no days off. Depending on the location, supplies may need to be shipped by air. The first album in the series, Songs From A Fire Tower, Pt. 1, was written and recorded at Livingston Lookout, another remote flight near Crowsnest Pass.

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Nine years ago, Turner decided to quit her stressful job as an addiction worker on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Suffering from what he calls “compassion fatigue,” he wanted a different life.

But he had also been playing in bands since he was 15 years old. He was a mainstay on the Vancouver independent scene and had stints with Woodpigeon and Fanshaw, among other acts. When he decided to work in the wilds of Alberta as a fire watcher, he thought he had left both worlds behind. But Evacuation Day spawned other songs. Eventually he was reassigned to a fire tower in Whitecourt. By a lucky coincidence, his “tower buddy” was an Edmonton musician named Erin Ottosen. She was his closest neighbor and they had to call each other throughout the day for security reasons. Eventually, they began exchanging songs via cell phone.

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“I did this challenge with her where I would write a song every day for two weeks straight and send it to her at the end of the day,” says Turner. “There were all these challenges that she was pushing me to do. I initially envisioned this as a collaborative effort between all the lookouts. But only a few of us at the time had cell phone signals that were reliable, that could deliver music. She fell apart. She left the world of the watchers, so I was left alone. I like to play with other people and I missed it. But I play most of the instruments, so it was fine to continue on my own and still collect other firewatch stories and put them to music.”

The first fire towers Turner assigned him came equipped with noisy generators, making them unsuitable for recording music. It wasn’t until he landed his first alpine lookout on Livingston Ridge, which was powered by solar panels, that he flew his portable studio by helicopter. Inside the 14-by-14-foot glass-windowed booth, Turner found the time, silence, and solitude to begin recording.

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“There are a couple of sides to this,” he says. “I wrote five albums. Some of the records, like part 2 and part 5, are journalistic things that happen at work, just like that. We have to write in a diary every day. The practice of doing that worked amazingly well for the songs. These are the facts and I will only sing about them. Then there’s the other side, which is the introverted inner experience of being alone and choosing to be alone, especially these days when everyone talks about isolation as a bad thing.”

Taking sonic cues from Calgary psyche-folk pop chameleon Astral Swans and American lo-fi veterans Yo La Tengo, Songs From A Fire Towner, Pt. 1 is a series of songs from “Alpine Lookout.” The first, Tornado Mountain, recounts another harrowing moment for Turner when he was nearly swept off a cliffside helipad during a storm on Livingstone Ridge before retreating to the observation deck to escape the gale-force winds.

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Fog Walker of Compton Ridge is a story song inspired by a tale told to Turner by a veteran lookout about an encounter with a skeletal man with a long beard who mysteriously appeared and disappeared in front of a fire lookout on Compton Ridge.

Turner is now parked at the Barrier Lake overlook, giving him a view of the Calgary skyline. It’s “close to civilization” and busier than time spent in more remote posts, with Turner having to respond to more radio chatter and reports of “fake smoke” or actual wildfires. But he was more than willing to “trade the extreme loneliness of nature for a cell phone signal and solar panels to record music.” He intends to release the next volume of Songs from a Fire Tower in the summer of 2024. Beyond that, he believes that his unusual work will always play a role in his creative output, even when the project is finished.

“I may not be as specific in my descriptions,” he says. “I might go back to keep it loose and not write about specific fire tower stories. But I think as long as he’s here, he’s going to inform music.”

Songs from a tower of fire, pint. 1 is already available.

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