Some have called wildland firefighters nomads; others have referred to them as gypsies, traveling from one camp — or fire — to another.
Many individuals who have different responsibilities in the firefighting community, though, may represent the last defense of fighting forest or wildland fires before flames edge toward dwellings or critical wildlife habitat. At every major fire in the Great Basin this summer, a tent city pops up, housing critical needs or sections required to sustain the small firefighting community of personnel coming from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or local agencies such as the Nevada Division of Forestry.
One such person who traveled thousands of miles from Alaska to her new assignment at the Draw Fire near Cold Springs was Courtney Fremont, a fire-line medic.
“I love the 48 (states). It’s a lot more divergent,” said Fremont, who had flown from Anchorage to Reno earlier in the day. “It’s a lot more dynamic … and I’m a line medic at heart.”
With her arms folded and standing before a tent, Fremont prefers the excitement of being on the fire line with fellow firefighters because if something goes wrong, she wants to be the first to provide medical assistance. Like many firefighters, though, Fremont will spend a week or less in Nevada and hopefully move on to another fire.
“I consider myself a nomad,” she said, trying to shield her eyes from the bright late afternoon sun. “I come to the staff, and I am ready to go.”
From mid-spring to early fall, Fremont and thousands of firefighters and support personnel make a living by fighting fire and saving property. When flames threatened to jump Highway 50 and move toward the Cold Springs café and adjacent mobile homes, a SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) dropped a line of retardant along the highway to stop any advancement from the flames. Firefighters on the ground then took over.
A small city pops up
The Draw Fire camp sprung up in six hours with round tents called yurts after a Great Basin Team 3 Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) arrived on the second day of the lightning-caused fire. The IMT assumed control of the fast-spreading fire from the local control of the BLM’s Carson City District.
Norm Rooker, a retired San Francisco Fire Department paramedic who now serves as a deputy public information officer for the IMT, also calls the firefighter crews nomadic and jokes they appear to be a traveling carnival show.
“They’re here to do some of that fire magic,” Rooker laughed, as he began to take this newspaper editor on a tour of the camp, a tent city that resembles rge uniformed setup design from the military.
As firefighters trickle into the camp, they pass by the supply camp, which is manned by teenagers from Oregon. In the compound’s main section are yurts housing logistics, communications, planning, incident command, weather, public information and medics. Near Highway 50 is security, which intercepts visitors, while a shower trailer, portable kitchen and dining tents anchor the southern edge. To the west, firefighters bunk down in their multi-color dome tents that are arranged in fairly straight lines away from the main camp’s noise.
Specialists in the field
Rooker pointed out a finance section tracks all costs, and reminds the overhead team about costs and what the greatest amount of return is on the firefighting investment. Within the three-person resource division, specialists outline the environmental specifics of the land such as the possibility of old American Indian archaeological sites or habitat.
Dave Chevalier, the camp’s public information officer and a retired USFS employee, returned to the field this year as a contractor. He said the resource specialists advise the management team how not to put more damage on the land during fire suppression.
“Resources advise us of the cultural and natural resource areas and how the least amount of damage is incurred,” added Chevalier, a Vietnam-era veteran who became a nomad by leaving after the Draw Fire for his Utah home for two days, awaiting a new assignment.
A resource team to evaluate the land and environment is not unique to firefighting. As Naval Air Station Fallon proposes to expand its training ranges in central Nevada, a similar resource team is evaluating the land to ensure nothing is damaged by adding more acres.
Keeping the camp operational
A well-managed camp cannot expect its equipment to run unless it has mechanics, and like the army, firefighters like soldiers fight better on a full stomach.
Carson Gubler, the ground support unit leader from Kanab, Utah, ensures the heavy equipment and vehicles keep performing during some of the most adverse conditions. Gubler said his section’s function provides for safe equipment from the beginning of the fire to when personnel leave and are on the road to their next assignment.
While his section is mall, Gubler said a much larger fire requires at least three to for mechanics, sometimes more. The section inspects equipment coming from different agencies and from contractors.
“We work from 5:30 in the morning until 10 p.m. every day,” Gubler explained. “The main rush is morning and also evening to fix equipment.”
If the section needs parts or tires, Gubler said the government has established agreements with parts shops or tire stores.
Near the mechanics is security, manned by a two-person team. Larger fires require many more.
Charlie Hiles came to the Draw Fire from the Yuba Rive Ranger District in northern California. He said the camp was peaceful for the week, and the only problems he faced were vendors trying to sell products on camp grounds.
“We encourage them to find a safe spot off the project,” Hiles said.
Rooker said firefighters have a mutual respect for each other, but the areas that may see more action from security personnel are those camps that set up near areas, which are more political or have an agenda against the government or the lands.
Communications or “commo” provides additional frequencies and repeaters, especially for the firefighting area.
“It takes the pressure of the dispatch centers,” Rooker said. “They (communications) came in with tactical frequencies, and then they set up their repeaters near base camp.”
Jake Conley, Communications unit leader and a retired Sparks Fire Department captain, said his section maintains contact with the BLM Carson City’s dispatch and with the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office.
Internally, Conley said modern technology has encroached to the camps.
“Internet depends on location,” he said. “A satellite company offers Internet, phones and a fax system.”
His staff of three technicians maintains the equipment during the time they are in camp until the entire management team pulls out.
“Their communications work well, and they don’t have issues,” Rooker said.
Liaison officer Karl Stocker works in the Incident Command section.
“My job is to provide information to cooperating agencies and stakeholders,” he said, naming the Nevada departments of transportation and wildlife as two he regularly contacts.
Stocker, whose job at the camp is similar to that of a community affairs officer in the military, reaches out to the ranchers and property owners in the area such as those who lived in the Alpine and Beach areas near the foothills where fire threatened ranches, cattle and homes. Stocker’s daunting task kept everyone informed of both the fire’s and firefighter’s progress.
When the fire and smoke threatened Highway 50, Stocker talked to NDOT about highway closures, which occurred frequently during the first two days of the fire.
He said the position provides many challenges.
“The best part is I come into a strange place, meet the folks,” the liaison officer explained. “The county (Churchill County) has been great to work with. I worked with Bill Lawry (Fallon/Churchill Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief and retired sheriff).”
Stocker said he finds it easy to work with people. He calls them helpful and cooperative.
It’s fact that fire produces its own weather in addition to what Mother Nature provides. That’s where meteorologist Andy Gorelow of Las Vegas comes in. A weatherman assigned to fires from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), examines satellite data, models and radar in formulating his predictions.
“I’m looking for thunderstorms,” he said, “as well as knowing wind speeds, temperatures, relative humidity and precipitation.”
Working next to Gorelow was Erik Christensen, a fire behavior analyst. Between the two men, they carry the potential of “life and death” decisions because of the movement of weather and fire.
Once Christensen receives weather information, he uses models to make projections, and 99 percent of the time their assessments become the final word in planning. His observations are made from the sky in helicopters and on foot.
“Fires are quite predictable,” said Christensen, who was sitting in front of a map. “A good weather forecast is a spot on and makes accurate predictions.”
That, added Christensen, makes his job much easier when he begins his planning, creates maps and prepares for briefings with the command team.
Taking care of personnel
Dusty Spence spent 21 years on the fire line. He knows how important a hot meal is for the men and women spending long hours fighting a fire or planning.
For a large operation such as the Draw Fire or others burning in western Nevada and other western states, the government contracts a vendor to provide meals. Zee’s, which is out of Springfield, Ore., near Eugene and California, brought a kitchen truck/trailer and set up a tent for beverages and salad and three dining tent. For six months, Zee’s moves from fire to fire, nomads bring their services.
“We’re the only contractor out here,” Spence said. “The other contracted companies are at different fires.”
Before the dining contractor rolled to the Draw Fire, the Cold Springs restaurant cooked more than 400 spaghetti meals for the personnel who had arrived at the site over the weekend. Zee’s arrived on Mondi and relies on obtaining provisions from US Foods and also local businesses in Fallon for some food. Spence, though, is proud of his company’s $400,000 kitchen that was built four years ago.
“The kitchen can compete with the restaurants in town,” he said.
As for a firefighter’s favorite meal, Spence said they like ribs for dinner and eggs for breakfast. During lunch, firefighters receive a bag lunch.
Next to the dining area was a 12-person showers housed in the back of a trailer. The facility, which was open 19 hours a day and closed during the daytime for cleaning, has eight sinks for shaving.
Bob Smith, Ely manager for Bishop Services, Inc., said their service is in constant demand, and last year during fire season, he had only four days off while supervising the facility. In addition to traveling to large fires, he said the company has driven its portable showers to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Like Las Vegas, which never sleeps, the Draw Fire Camp maintained an around-the-clock vigil by becoming the second largest community in Churchill County if it were only for a week. For people like Rooker, though, he left for his Las Vegas home, waiting to see where his next journey takes him. For hundreds others, it was Cold Springs for a week … somewhere different the following week, yet firefighters have adjusted to their wanderlust ways as a creature of habit.
By traveling from fire to fire with an extensive support mechanism, these 21st Great Basin nomads remain safe and alive from the destruction that Mother Nature’s fiery fury produces, whether they face a fast-moving fire on the grassy desert floors or on wooded mountains.