Parkdale resident follows love of geology to a successful career identifying oil and gas resources
By Stu Watson
When mountains rumble, Lee Fairchild listens.
When volcanoes threaten to explode a column or river of rock, ash, steam and gas at temperatures reaching 1,300 F—and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey tell any sane person to get as far away as possible—Lee thinks it would be great fun to get a little closer.
Lee never suspected he had this adrenaline junkie hiding inside when he came of age in the Bay Area and headed off to college. At first, he majored in pre- law and economics, then switched to business after a transfer to University of California, Berkeley.
The problem was, he had to take science classes.
“I was terrified of the sciences,” Lee says.
So he signed up for field geology. Lee expected to cruise through it and get back to accounting. Wrong.
“I loved it,” he says. “I’d come back from my field work, and instead of opening a business book, I’d go straight to the geology.”
Lee left the accounting to his future wife, Karen. Seventeen years ago, they built a house on Baldwin Creek Road that faces south toward Mount Hood. It was by conscious choice, both to get out of Houston, Texas, and to place themselves near a volcano.
Volcanoes play a big part in both of their lives. Karen grew up near Mount Shasta. Lee, with the guidance of professor Clyde Wahrhaftig, abandoned business studies to study volcanic mud flows and the destructive power of pyroclastic eruptions.
The excitement of geology offered Lee a clear choice.
“It’s very visual,” he says. “It’s like a 3-D conceptual puzzle. You’re trying to figure out what made this stuff. I just loved that.”
Lee thinks about the path not taken, with immense respect for Karen’s talent.
“It was so much more fun than accounting,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Lee’s professors encouraged graduate study, and he had a choice of Washington or Texas A&M. He chose the Northwest, securing his master’s in structural geology (how rocks deform under pressure) and a doctorate in geomorphology (land forms) and volcanology.
“While I was doing my master’s, I fell in love with volcanoes along the way,” he says.
It was the late 1970s, and graduate students were pushing volcanology in new directions. Lee found himself studying pyroclastic flows—explosive bursts of rock and ash and steam like those that tore down the slopes of Mount St. Helens in early 1980.
“It’s really cool, really dramatic stuff,” he says. “I was just totally hooked.”
Lee shares vivid memories of field work with fellow doctoral candidate Dave Johnston on the Augustine volcano in Alaska. In the late 1970s, shortly after a pyroclastic flow had come within 100 yards of a University of Alaska research hut, Lee became Dave’s field assistant on a research trip to Augustine.
A float plane dropped them off with a promise to pick them up in a month. Preparations were a little sketchy. They had no radio but plenty of junk food.
The two spent the week searching for a path into the volcano’s crater. On the 4,000-foot descent to the crater’s floor, they walked a ridge of loose rock that passed a fumarole belching hydrochloric gas.
“It was just blazing hot,” Lee says. “We were wearing normal hiking boots with Vibram soles, and it was threatening to melt the soles.”
A meter below the surface, they could see red-hot magma. It blew their high- temp thermometer, which topped out at 1,200 degrees.
“We thought it was going to erupt,” Lee says. “We ran all the way down, laughing really hard.”
Giddy with adrenalin, they went back up with a 5-foot steel bar someone had left in the research hut. Wearing double gloves, Dave stuck it in the crack and heard it clank against the hot rock. That meant it wasn’t molten magma, but was hot rock instead.
“But my glove caught fire,” Lee recalls. “Dave pulls out that steel rod and throws it, and it just warped like a piece of spaghetti as it flew through the air.”
Dave later died in the St. Helens blast, while Lee was teaching other acolytes at University of Washington. After graduating, Lee had a choice of more teaching at Whitman College or taking a job in the oil industry.
“They made a great sales pitch,” Lee says of his interviews with his potential employers. “Travel the world, get an intensive in-house training.”
Nine months later, he was in Mogadishu, Somalia, the first of many overseas stops that have included Indonesia, Australia, Norway, Canada and England.
Besides his own opportunities in Houston, Lee says it was better for Karen, as well, who worked as a consultant for KPMG and managed a large department for Texas Commerce Bank. After moving north in 2001, she has worked for the Center for Living, and he consults with Exxon and Chevron to secure oil and Lee’s career has taken him around the world, resulting in a collection of unique items. natural gas leases.
As with many people who relocate to Parkview, the Fairchilds knew of the valley’s charms from three windsurfing vacations. Gardening, hiking and cross- country skiing dominate their days now, but Lee says none of this would have been possible if not for the rocks and all the amazing things they burp forth.
“I got paid really well, and got an amazing education,” he says. “It was just phenomenal.”