Thousands battling Ariz. fire find respite in camp

June 17, 2011 - 4:13 AM
Western Wildfires-Tent Town

FILE - In this June 9, 2011 file photo, firefighters read press clippings about the Wallow Fire as they wait for a meal at an incident command center in Eagar, Ariz. Thousands of firefighters are battling the massive forest fire that has become Arizona's largest, relying upon large base camps where they are fed and where they can sleep, bathe and put on their gear. Such camps have become the standard in modern wildfire work. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

EAGAR, Ariz. (AP) — The kitchen dishes out two hot meals a day, plus a beefy sack lunch.

There are private showers for bathing, a medical trailer for healing, tents for sleeping, even places to pick up clean clothes and drop off chain saws for repair.

The base camp at the Eagar rodeo grounds — one of three main camps housing thousands of firefighters battling the largest forest fire in Arizona's history — has everything needed to meet its residents' basic needs, and then some.

"It's like a little city," said 29-year-old firefighter John Chester of the Glendale Fire Department in suburban Phoenix, who has spent the past couple of weeks manning a water tender in the fight for the mountain town of Nutrioso. "The camps are amazing."

Many of the 4,000 firefighters on the lines in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest work 12- to 16-hour days for up to two weeks in a row, without a day off.

Supporting that many firefighters is a huge logistical dance that involves hundreds of additional people to set up and maintain the camps. Still, amenities like medical trailers, hot showers and steak dinners have become the standard in modern wildfire work.

At the Eagar camp, firefighters start their day in the chow line at the field kitchen, a large tent with enough tables and chairs to accommodate several hundred.

A person stationed next to some stainless steel sinks makes sure everyone in line washes their hands. The camp has strict rules on hygiene. With dirty, muck-covered men stomping everywhere, it's a constant battle against "camp crud," illnesses that can sweep through crews if not prevented, fire spokesman Alan Barbian said.

Breakfast on Wednesday was scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, hash browns, bacon, and croissants, plus huge jugs of steaming coffee. At the height of this camp's activity, they pumped out 1,900 breakfasts, 2,000 sack lunches and 1,900 dinners — some of which were boxed and trucked to firefighters in smaller, more bare-bones camps in remote areas.

There are always more lunches served, said food manager Terry Seward of Tucson, because plenty of the men and women grab two.

Seward has been doing similar work for years and can tell by the numbers that it's a whopper of a fire.

"This has been a big incident," he said. "Rarely does a caterer serve 5,000 meals a day."

Each morning, the weather and fire behavior team briefs the crew bosses, pulling information from National Weather Service observations and mobile weather units set up in the fire zone.

The crews then head to the lines of the 760-square-mile fire that broke out May 29 and is 33 percent contained. Authorities believe the fire was caused by an unattended campfire. They've questioned two people but haven't named them as suspects.

The Eagar camp is quiet during the day when the firefighters are gone but bustles again in the late evening when the firefighters return from their shifts. Crew members then exchange dirty fire clothes for clean ones, grab a hot meal and take a shower in one of a pair of specially outfitted semi-trailers. They can also drop off their chain saws at a repair trailer.

Those who are hurting stop by a medical trailer, often drawing simple medicine like Sudafed for noses clogged by smoke, ibuprofen for strained muscles, or wash for eyes clogged with ash. Naomi Brown, from northern California's Lassen National Forest, oversees the operation, which also dispatches ambulances and paramedic teams stationed around the fire.

"If you consider how much it costs to send someone to the emergency room, this has really saved a lot of money," she said of the operation. They've seen hundreds with minor gripes since June 5, and treated nearly three dozen injuries, sending 10 firefighters to the hospital for treatment.

"Usually, when we do treat someone, we give them an IV, get them rested and get them back on the line the next day," Brown said.

Elsewhere at the camp, crews revamp equipment, untangling and rerolling fire hoses. Mechanics with heavy maintenance trucks change fire truck tires, and weld and otherwise patch up damaged equipment.

As the sun goes down, the firefighters head to their tents so they can grab some sleep and do it all again.

Since battling the fire is a 24-hour operation, other crews head out at night and come back at daybreak so they can eat at the Eagar camp, then head to a local school gym to sleep.

Chester, the Glendale firefighter, said rolling into the camp after a 16-hour day is a welcome relief.

"You get back, you take a shower, you go eat, and you go to bed," he said. "I couldn't complain — this is nice."