The low hum of voices is continuous, punctuated by ringing telephones and the crackling of a short-wave radio at the Boise Interagency Fire Center, the nation's command post for the war on wildfires.
The operation is described as "organized chaos" by fire center spokesman Arnold Hartigan, partly because this year's dry weather means it is staffed around the clock at a time of year when it normally would operate only in the daytime.Beginning with the spring fire season in the South and peaking with roaring fires of late summer in the West, a staff of around 20 per shift - depending on the number and severity of fires - routes everything from toilet paper to bulldozers to create the small towns that mushroom around base camps at major fires.
At one time this summer, about 8,800 firefighters are battling the worst of some 200 blazes in the West and Alaska.
Along with the firefighters themselves, manpower for food service, public information, law enforcement and heliport operations is pulled from every corner of the nation.
Three control desks in the logistics center are covered with color-coded requisition orders - blue for helicopters, orange for air tankers, green for manpower, red for equipment. Specialists check computer terminals to locate resources needed on the fire line in some remote mountainous area.
The logistics center keeps shuffling crews in and out of hot spots as fire bosses manage to contain one blaze only to have a dry lightning storm or a careless smoker spark new ones.
The pavement outside the center's huge warehouse is cluttered with boxes and equipment, especially at night, when trucks and cargo planes are loaded to fill requisitions while fire crews use the cool dark hours to get some rest.
In just one month this summer, the center moved the bulk of the 1.2 million pounds of goods and equipment it has handled so far this year - resources worth more than $8 million.
In 1985, the worst fire season in decades with 2.9 million acres burned, some 1,400 structures were lost to forest and brush fires. This year the number of structures lost can still be counted in the dozens.
But nearly 2.4 million acres have burned this year, and while over half of that has been in remote, roadless terrain in Alaska, the total has already exceeded fire acreage for all of 1987. Land managers fear it will exceed the acreage burned in 1985.