Home life at a fire camp consists of washing, eating and sleeping.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 19, 2012
A portable village with more than three times the population of Wilson has emerged at the Stilson parking lot.
To the 669 firefighters, cooks and maintenance workers spending their nights at the northwest corner of highways 22 and 390, it’s called the “incident command post.” More simply, it’s fire camp.
Fire camp’s a practical operation, clearly not put together with an eye for aesthetics. Really, it’s a tad ugly.
Seven yurts, a handful of trailers and 20 or so porta potties are sprinkled across the sprawled-out camp. Dozens upon dozens of one- and two-person tents dot the surrounding weed-filled fields. Outside the “situation unit planning tent,” two posters made by local gradeschoolers that read “We love the firemen” and “Thank you” provide a visual highpoint.
At fire camp, the hum of machinery, florescent lighting and cars passing on the highway are ever-present, providing a less-than euphonious auditory experience.
The camp depopulates during the day as wildland firefighters from around the country depart by air and road to wrap up work on the Horsethief Canyon Fire. The 3,373-acre blaze threatened Snow King and east Jackson before fire managers surrounded it with a force that at one point reached nine helicopters, 46 engines, three bulldozers and 16 20-person crews. Some of the crew “spikes out,” spending chilly nights bundled up in the woods.
Most, however, head back to Stilson.
That’s when — for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours at night — camp comes alive.
“They come, they eat, they shower and then they go to bed,” said Jesse Bender, the public information officer for Horsethief Canyon.
The firefighters, most of whom work 16-hour days, recharge on air mattresses and with simple but hardy food.
Matthew Davenport has been preparing meals for fire crews for the past four years with North Slope Catering, a company of North Pole, Alaska, that’s contracted by the U.S. Forest Service. During days, while firefighters are shouldering heavy loads, cutting lines and hosing down hot spots, Davenport is hard at work prepping meals.
On Sept. 12, the dinner menu was bacon cheeseburgers on kaiser buns with garlic french fries. Although it’s cooked in bulk, North Slope’s food, Davenport says, beats any cafeteria chow.
“Our food is exceptional,” he said, spouting off about how the 5-ounce burger patties are USDA-choice and delicious.
A plate, Davenport says, comes with two patties — almost two-thirds of a pound of meat — unless you ask otherwise. The meals are meaty by design.
“We’re required to provide 6,800 to 7,200 calories per day per firefighter,” he said.
Andy Hall, regularly a prescribed burn technician with Grand Teton National Park, must appreciate the gut-busting portions that North Slope provides.
The head of the fire’s “Tango division,” Hall said he spent his days during the later part of last week “reading the terrain” and “developing a strategy for the south end” of Horsethief Canyon. That entailed hiking, hiking and a bit more hiking.
“I’ve been walking all over the place,” he said. “It’s not at all like hiking on a trail.”
Earlier in his career, Hall spent 11 years on a “hotshot crew,” a job that brought him to more fire camps that he can recall — the tally’s well into the hundreds. Hall’s pretty easy on Davenport when ranking the “exceptional” fare.
“It’s pretty good,” he said after finishing a meal of fish tacos, cole slaw and salad. “I’d say it’s probably an eight.
“I base it all on the salad bar,” the “basically” vegetarian firefighter added.
For Arden Snyder, a Gila, N.M., firefighter who’s working a 300-gallon engine on Horsethief Canyon, the worst part of fire camp is the nights. In September, at 6,000 feet, they can get nippy.
“I can already tell it’s going to get cold,” Snyder, 23, said while fiddling with her smartphone after eating her dinner.
Snyder, who was dispatched to Jackson without any say in the matter, did concede that camp life had its merits. Games of Frisbee and Hacky Sack can often be found, though she had yet to find any at Stilson Thursday night.
“What makes me pumped is seeing fire, getting off your district and seeing somewhere new,” Snyder said.
After Snyder, Hall and the hundreds of other firefighters take off each morning, a team of camp-bound workers begins to gear up for the day.
Dale Pickering, the fire’s medical unit leader, coordinates responses to minor injuries in the field from a tent down at Stilson. Pickering, from Rexberg, Idaho, also administers over-the-counter medication.
“We go through a lot of Chapstick,” he said, “a lot of hand lotion.”
Asked what med was in greatest demand, his answer didn’t surprise.
“Actually, we go through quite a bit of Dayquil and Nyquil,” Pickering said. “That seems to be everybody’s favorite.”
Robert Scudder, like Davenport, works for North Slope Catering. Scudder, from West Jordan, Utah, drives a 100-foot Freightliner filled with paper towels, kitchen supplies and dry goods from fire to fire.
He landed the gig after responding to a Craigs-list ad about three months ago. Previous jobs, he said, include airman in the U.S. Air Force, restaurant owner and stunt double on movie sets.
Once Scudder arrives at a new fire camp, the job’s far from over. He sets up tents, makes lunches, breaks down cardboard boxes and helps keep camp tidy.
“It’s a busy life,” Scudder said, taking a break from wiping down tables. “I’m 71, and I can outwork any teenager.”
“I enjoy meeting people, helping people — making ’em feel nice and clean,” he added. “The people at these camps and the firefighters are just wonderful people. They’re dedicated at what they do. I love pleasing them.”
Come November, once fire season wanes, it’ll all be over. Next summer, Scudder said he plans to pack up his bags and do it all over again.