HESPERUS – Five thousand, two hundred sixty and counting. That’s how many cords of wood Tom Fischer says he’s cut and sold in almost 30 years.
That’s more than 660,000 cubic feet of wood – enough to fill more than 7½ Olympic-size swimming pools. And Fischer cut each cord – 4-feet-tall by 4-feet-wide by 8-feet-long – all by himself.
He isn’t much of a people person.
“I just live my life and leave people alone,” he said. “I love and adore the peace and quite of the wilderness.”
Fischer worked for himself most of his life, whether running a newspaper distributorship seven days a week or working countless hours alone cutting and hauling trees out of forests in the San Juan Basin. He moved from a secluded 4-acre property in Rafter J years ago to escape a swelling neighborhood. He’s been to San Diego, but left a few hours after he arrived.
“There were just too many people,” Fischer said from a reclining chair in his dimly lit, fire-warmed trailer, smoke rising in a column from his hand-rolled cigarette. He’s smoked for years, said Dan Wand, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service office in Durango from 1987 to 2017.
“He was just a nice, pleasant guy. He never really had a bad attitude. He always trying to do the right things for the right reasons,” Wand said. “As for his mannerisms – it works for Tom.”
Out in the backcountryFischer said he knew the first time he felled a tree on Missionary Ridge that a logger’s life was for him. It was the 1980s, and he worked seven days a week ensuring the Rocky Mountain News, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal landed on doorsteps in Southwest Colorado.
Fischer wouldn’t hire a bookkeeper or general manager – he said he couldn’t hire someone he could trust like himself. The only vacation he took in his almost decadelong distributorship was a four-day trip to the East Coast to visit his grandmother.
“I wanted my life back,” he said.
So, in 1991, he quit, sold the business and bought a chain saw, truck and a tractor.
Wand said he first met Fischer when he worked in his distributorship. He remembers when Fischer got into the logging business and bought all new equipment – “I realized he’s kind of serious about doing it,” Wand said.
Fischer landed his first Colorado State Forest Service gig in Echo Basin near Mancos.
“The learning phase – the first two years – were the most dangerous,” he said.
Each tree presents a unique danger. “Some of the trees get ticked off and don’t want to be cut,” he said. And Fischer, in his almost 30 years of forestry, said he’s seen it all.
Some trees have thick limbs because upward growth is stunted by porcupines, which eat bark at the top of a tree and force growth into the branches. When the trees fall, the limbs act like a spring, flipping the tree in mid-air, Fischer said.
Some trees are surrounded by brush and other obstacles that can trap someone in the path of a falling tree, he said. And if a tree isn’t cut low enough, its heft can cause the timber to fall in unanticipated ways.
Fischer said he once saw a man cut a tree at waist height – beer in hand – and the trunk slid and fell on the man’s foot. The tree crushed every bone, he said.
“Once a tree starts going down, you never know,” he said.
It’s hard labor hauling trees weighing hundreds of pounds through the Southwest Colorado backcountry, and Fischer does it the old-fashioned way – just himself, his truck and a wood splitter, Wand said. The forester knew Fischer to be meticulous – his piles were always stacked in a neat and orderly way, Wand said.
Now retired, the 62-year-old Fischer says he can’t get out of the forest. Fischer said he tried to quit in 2013. He rented his home, sold his tractor and traveled the Southwest in a trailer he customized himself. That’s when he went to, and promptly left, San Diego.
It’s the meditative nature of cutting that keeps him coming back. He keeps detailed logs of his work in the wilderness in notebooks he’s had since early ’90s. He’s kept every contract he’s ever been awarded from the State Forest Service in a manila envelope. He has scrapbooks filled with pictures from the woods.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “As long as I can physically do it, I’ll cut the wood.”
People have always told him he’s a smart guy and that he has more potential than required to cut and sell wood for a living, Fischer said. But felling trees, cutting trunks and splitting wood is enough to keep “a roof over my head and food in my gut,” he said.
“I’m supposed to be retired, but I do this because it’s something to do,” Fischer said of his firewood business. “And it helps keep up with inflation.”