Line crews doing battle with raging forest fires in the West this summer still pack shovels and chain saws, but firefighting has also gone high-tech.
Nearby fire camps are filled with the drone of portable electric generators running computers, copying machines and occasionally video movies shown on big-screen televisions, while an elaborate communications network keeps the ground crews in touch with helicopters and bombers dropping water and fire retardants.In snowy January, seven months before hot ash would fall like snow in fire camps at Yellowstone, Flaming Gorge and elsewhere, fire officials prepared budgets to pay seasonal fire crews. Contracts were solicited for caterers, portable shower trucks, outhouses, bulldozers and even mule team leaders interested in responding with a moment's notice to any one of a thousand out-of-the-way places.
The advance preparation helps forest officials mobilize to remote locations with all of the support the crew members on the line need to do their work - and to recover from it between shifts.
Forest Service officials supervising the almost 2,000-acre fire close to Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River said the techniques used to fight that blaze fit a pattern established for all major forest fires.
"We've been practicing at large fires for 50 years with lots of emphasis during the last 20 years," said Woody Williams, incident commander for the Flaming Gorge fire.
All of the federal and state agencies that control public lands have made inter-agency arrangements to help fight fires in each others' jurisdictions under an agreement called the Incident Command System. "All of the activities have the same job titles and the same nomenclature so there is no confusion between agencies," Williams said.
Williams and his core support unit were called to Flaming Gorge Monday from their home base in Eugene, Ore., after local Forest Service officials decided the threat to wildlands and developed property was great enough to give the blaze a top-ranking priority.
One of his jobs upon arrival at the fire was to decide how many firefighters were needed. An interagency dispatch network then figured out where the crews would come from - and they came from far and wide: California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
Firefighters working with engines or hand tools are still the backbone of any firefighting effort, Williams said. About 350 firefighters were alternating on 12-hour shifts by the time the firefighting effort peaked Tuesday, one day before the blaze was contained.
Four helicopters with water buckets and five airplanes - a guide plane and four bombers that drop fire retardants - were working the fire from the sky.
The coordinating work would be much simpler if officials had the luxury of fighting only one fire at a time, but that is frequently not the case.
The Forest Service's helicopter attack team, for example, was called away to the fire at Yellowstone National Park. Then another Utah team was dispatched to a fire in Idaho Friday, less than 24 hours before the Flaming Gorge fire started, apparently from errant fireworks, about 3 a.m. Saturday.
To help coordinate the transfers, and to keep equipment and fire-crew assignments straight, support personnel in the nearby fire camp, running the "business" side of the fire, use computers to relay information via phone lines to a regional dispatch center in Boise.
A number of other support units, set up in tents and county fair-style plywood booths, make the fire camp a self-contained headquarters for the supervisors and firefighters alike for both their work and off-duty needs.
The transportation unit keeps track of 75 vehicles that come and go - from ambulances and pickup trucks to bulldozers and tank trucks. Park in the right spot and a member of the transportation crew will make sure your windshield gets washed before the next trek out of the camp. An unusual twist with this fire was the need for boats to ferry fire crews from the fire camp side of the Green River to the firebreak line side, and back. Another unit coordinates manpower efforts, planning shift schedules. The plans are typed on a word processing computer and duplicated on a copying machine for distribution to 20 or more supervisors.
Finance personnel keep time sheets for crew members. Supply officers dispense truck loads of yellow fire-retardant shirts and green pants and all sorts of other equipment for use on the line and in the fire camp including fire hoses, shovels, hard hats, goggles, canteens, twine, wire and the like.
The communications department uses telephones, computers and radio equipment to coordinate activities. Also, public information officers gather data for reporters.
Other fire camp work crews cut roads, bury temporary electrical lines, build office shacks, sharpen tools, clean up trash and provide camp security.
An analyst uses a computer to mesh weather and fire information and plan strategy for fighting the fire. A comptroller keeps an eye on the various expenditures and contract costs.
The contract caterer serves 600 meals three times a day, and they're not just bread and beans. A breakfast of french toast, sausage, peaches, cold cereal, juice, milk and coffee is served beginning at 4 a.m. for crews that go to the line at 5. Sack lunches they carry with them include meat and cheese sandwiches on croissant rolls, fresh fruit, candy bars, potato chips and fruit juice or soft drinks. Dinner is steak and potatoes with vegetables and salad.
"A guy could wander in here wearing a yellow shirt and eat good for days," a firefighter observed while going through the dinner line.
Joe Houston, the caterer at the Flaming Gorge camp, said he watches the fire's progress closely. The biggest complication of his job is finding food in large enough quantities to feed sometimes more than 1,000 people. His second biggest concern is the fear that a food order on its way from civilization in a 30-foot refrigerated truck will arrive after the fire is controlled and fire crews have been sent home.
Houston said he is one of 14 caterers in the West whose business thrives or wanes depending on the fire season. He is one of the contractors who agreed in January to respond on request to fires in a designated geographic area and provide hot meals each day.
Steve Sams, Flaming Gorge District Ranger, said firefighting costs are not a budgeted expense for obvious reason - the potential for fire always exists, but the frequency of seriousness of a fire is never known until after it is out. He said the $1.4 million spent fighting the Flaming Gorge fire exceeds his district's annual operating budget.
"We can plan for the resources necessary for fire prevention and suppression equipment, but that's about it," Sams said.
Sams said the value of the natural resources and suppression costs figure in when firefighting techniques are planned. The scenic value of the forested canyons on either side of the Green River was ranked high, but scenery had a lower value in the fire area than area improvements. "In this case, there are multimillion-dollar electrical facilities" at the hydroelectric generating station at the dam. "There was a quick decision to fight this fire very aggressively."
If the area had been a habitat for endangered wildlife species, that would have been a major factor in determining the resources used to fight the fire.
Salaries account for about half of the firefighting costs. The two other largest categories are the cost of helicopters and air tankers, about 20 percent; and the contract costs for catering, heavy equipment and other support materials - also 20 percent.
Each run an air tanker makes costs $27,000, and the caterer isn't just earning his money doling out C rations or bread and beans.
The fire camps often include a commissary where workers can buy personal goods, and frequently there is a recreation area with videos on a big-screen television where crew members can relax when they're not working.
Morale among the firefighters is usually good but varies from crew to crew.
Members of the Uintah Basin Regulars, the first crew called to the fire Saturday, said morale isn't a problem because they get along well. "Interesting people make an interesting crew. If you've got a lot of boring people you'll have a boring crew," said crew member Ron Curry who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Roosevelt during the summer months when he's not fighting fires. The overtime he gets from fire duty helps him pay for school expenses at a Phoenix electronics and computer institute he attends.
Janene Bolton, one of two women on the fire crew, is a target of much of the kidding but said she works five times as hard as her male counterparts. There usually aren't more than two women on a 20-member crew, she said. "Three, if it's a really good crew."
She also uses fire money to help pay school expenses at Utah State University where she is studying elementary education. During the summer months, she is diverted from her job with the Forest Service as a wilderness ranger to fire duties.
All of the firefighters are responsible for their own accommodations _ most sleep in sleeping bags either in pack tents or under the stars.
Fighting fires is the most regular work some of the crew members have all year, said Ralph Whiteall from Ft. Duchesne, who expects to make $4,000 to $5,000 this summer fighting fires. He's been working fires during summer months for most of the past 11 years. During the rest of the year he's doing well to work odd jobs, he said.