How wildfire camps keep crews ready for battle
BOISE, Idaho – Empty cow pastures one day can be animated by hundreds of firefighters the next as fire camps with colorful tent cities spring up.
More than 20,000 wildland firefighters are battling some 100 large wildfires in the western United States, and trucks full of supplies and equipment are needed to keep them effective at fighting the blazes for weeks on end.
“We are going to create a small village,” said Evans Kuo, a “Type 1” incident commander assigned to the largest and most dangerous wildfires in the country. Its intervention command team has 44 members. “The main idea of the camp is not only to house the incident command team, but also to house the base camp which has food, water, beds and showers.”
HOW GREAT ARE FIRE CAMPS?
The size of each camp is determined by the size and complexity of the wildfire, with the largest fires attracting more than 1,000 firefighters and support personnel led by Type 1 Incident Command teams.
Agencies of the United States Department of the Interior, primarily the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service provide firefighters, as do state agencies and tribes.
There are also Type 2 command teams on smaller, less complex fires that attract around 200 to 500 firefighters. Type 3 incidents may or may not have a campfire.
Over 95% of all forest fires are extinguished quickly or within days by local firefighters and are classified as Type 4 or 5. They usually do not have a fire camp.
Caterers, semi-trailers with shower stalls and portable toilets are brought to large fire camps to ensure firefighters get enough food and a chance to remove dirt, ash and sweat.
“It’s a huge moral boost on the line,” said Bubba Pugh, who has been fighting wildfires with the Idaho Land Department for about a decade. “Having the campfire helps us get the job done.”
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A FIRE FIGHTER CAMP?
An Incident Commander with decades of firefighting experience runs the show, plotting a short and long term strategy that is recalibrated daily. The responsibilities of the fire camp are divided into divisions which include planning, logistics, communications, medical care, and even security.
Large fires will also have a branch of air operations to coordinate fire-resistant drops by jets or other planes, as well as water drops by helicopters. Some camps will also have a person in charge of night operations, when the firefighters can make good progress.
Public Information Officers help educate area residents through social media and media. They also work with law enforcement on evacuations and road closures.
While fire camps are hierarchical, the system includes a point of sale for firefighters to anonymously report safety concerns to an employee relations person at a camp or online.
The camps also include someone who tracks the overall cost of fighting the fire, which can run into the millions of dollars. The federal government spent $ 2.3 billion to fight forest fires last year, a number that is expected to increase significantly this year.
WHERE ARE THE FIRE FIGHTING CAMPS?
Kuo said schools make good fire camps because they have electricity and internet access, which has become increasingly important in fighting fires. Information can be distributed to firefighters on smartphones using code scanners.
Firefighters bring their own tents and can set up on athletic fields or, if they are in more remote areas, anywhere from grasslands to cow pastures.
“Sometimes we can’t sleep in the most luxurious fields,” Pugh said. “But find some nice flat ground and expect to be there for the duration.”
Communication in remote locations is mainly done through portable radios. Communications teams place repeaters – devices that receive and retransmit radio signals – on ridges so commanders can communicate with firefighters in the field.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has the largest portable radio store outside of the US Department of Defense. Center spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said most of the centre’s radios, around 23,000, are on forest fires. Not all radios are used at the same time they need to be charged.
Remote command posts are often operated from yurts or office trailers, with different divisions having their own workspace.
Large fires also often have satellite camps to save time, as the journey from a command post to other areas of the fire can take hours.
HOW AND WHEN IS THE FOOD SERVED?
Firefighters are given three high calorie meals a day and snacks to keep them in shape for physically intensive work.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, firefighters gathered in mess rooms morning and evening, enjoying the camaraderie of working away from the line of fire. Now, firefighters disperse to take their meals, sometimes returning to their tents or finding a tree to sit under. Lunch is usually a packed lunch taken in the field.
In the satellite camps, precooked food is flown to them.
WHAT IS THE PLAN?
Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Command teams produce an Incident Action Plan each day that outlines objectives and responsibilities, typically four days in advance. Each day the plan is recalibrated based on various factors, the main one being the weather. The plan is typically 12-20 pages long and is available in PDF format so that it can be viewed on smartphones or other devices.
Kuo gets up at 5 a.m. to prepare for the 6 a.m. morning briefing, which is followed by further briefings and planning sessions during the day which lasts until 10 p.m.
“Somewhere in there you’re trying to take food,” he said.
Most firefighters have been on duty for months and will likely be needed for more than a month as some fires are expected to burn through September.
“There is a burnout factor,” Kuo said, summing up the current atmosphere among firefighters. “But that’s what we signed up for, so you dig deep and get through.”
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