Former Fire Lookout Wins Prestigious UM Writing Award
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: April 5, 2023

MISSOULA – Austin Hagwood, a creative writing graduate student at the University of Montana, spent five seasons staffing fire lookouts in the Bitterroot National Forest. His mountaintop adventures inspired him to start a book, which recently earned him one of UM’s most prestigious writing honors, the Merriam-Frontier Award.

Hagwood’s winning submission consisted of four chapters from his book in progress, “Fire Finder: Life as a Lookout in the Northern Rockies.” The work gives readers a window into the solitude and excitement of the job, as well as resulting reflections by the writer.

Hagwood will read from his manuscript at 5 p.m. Friday, April 7, at UM’s Mansfield Library. The reading is free and open to the public.

The judges chose Hagwood’s manuscript from a robust field of fiction, poetry and nonfiction submissions from UM students. They wrote in their statement, “Austin Hagwood delighted us with his exceptionally thoughtful and skillful nonfiction work ‘Fire Finder: Life as a Lookout in the Northern Rockies.’ Austin took us into the lookout and made us want to stay and learn more. We saw it, smelled it and felt the anxiety of wildfire appearing on the landscape and strangers showing up on the lookout steps.

“But his memoir goes deeper. He shows his readers who he is now and who he has been, digesting his past while grounded very much in his present. He deftly avoids Western outdoor cliches and doesn’t romanticize his experiences. He also avoids anxious environmental writing, instead showing us why we love the Western outdoors and landscape. He leads his readers to want more, and we encourage him to keep writing.”

Hagwood is a second-year Master of Fine Arts student in Creative Writing. He grew up in the mountain town of Quincy in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he hiked to abandoned fire lookouts. He earned an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Cambridge in England.

In 2017, Hagwood learned accidentally that staffing fire lookouts could be a real job and applied to 100 lookout posts in five states.

“I just showed up in the Bitterroot, wide-eyed,” he said. “I fell in love with the land.”

Hagwood worked five seasons in the southern Bitterroot National Forest. During winters from 2016 to 2018, he also worked several stints in Papua New Guinea, doing research in anthropology and botany with Fulbright and National Geographic grants.

For Hagwood, who said a beautifully constructed sentence can reflect the beauty of a place, UM’s Creative Writing program was a natural next step.

“I couldn’t ask for a more stellar group of peers and incredible mentors,” he said. “I am so thankful for the program, and the award means so much to me.”

Christopher Dombrowski, assistant director of the Creative Writing Program, calls Hagwood “an exemplary citizen, an exemplary writer and an exemplary human.” Hagwood is “always the smartest person in the room,” he said, “but he’s also the most humble person,” and he raises the quality of the classroom. His stories show us the importance of fire in the landscape and “the importance of silence in a world that is increasingly noisy.”

The Merriam-Frontier Award has honored student writers since 1982. It was established by the late H.G. Merriam, a UM English professor. Merriam arrived at UM in 1919 after being a member of the first class of American Rhodes Scholars. He began teaching creative writing in 1920 with five students and with them founded the literary magazine Frontier. Merriam spent his career nurturing Western writers and encouraging the Western voice in writing. He created the undergraduate degree in creative writing, the second of its kind in the United States after Harvard University.

UM began offering the MFA in Creative Writing in 1964. For more about the award, visit .

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