Meeting the Logistical Challenges of a Huge Wildfire Fight

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Fire trucks from all over California line the road at the Blue Cut Fire Command Post in Devore. (Susan Valot/KQED)

As the Blue Cut Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest ballooned this week, a new city was born at the base of the fire.

Tent by tent, trailer by trailer, the Blue Cut Fire Command Post emerged to host thousands fire personnel who may be here for days or even weeks.

Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, at the base of the Cajon Pass where the fire is burning, normally is filled with people eating, playing Frisbee golf among the gently rolling hills or maybe fishing at the edge of the park's pond.

But as the Blue Cut Fire blew up Tuesday, churning through some 1,000 acres an hour and growing to almost 60 square miles as of Friday night, an incident command team began putting in orders to create the pop-up city known as the command post.

Now, the grassy areas are peppered with tents. Green, red and yellow fire trucks line the park roads. And trailers make up a "Main Street," offering everything from a health clinic to a copy center.


"There's everything here," said Karen Morris, who helps run Incident Solutions, a contractor that provides emergency communications and radios for fire camps.

"It just pops up out of nowhere in the middle of a field or like this beautiful park -- this is a really nice park," Morris said. "And people just get their tents out and they sleep here and they eat here and they live here."

Her family's company, which travels from wildfire to wildfire, normally doesn't travel this far south from its Grants Pass, Oregon, base. But when fire command officials cannot find local, approved vendors -- often when many wildfires are burning at once -- they must turned to approved companies in neighboring regions.

"You get a call. You're sitting down watching the Olympics," Morris said, laughing. "And all of a sudden, it's like, OK, you're leaving and you just, your stuff's already pre-packed. You're just grabbing a couple incidentals, your phone charger, your phone, you know, stuff like that."

About 12 hours later, Morris was at a fire base in Southern California, making sure firefighters can communicate with each other in the camp and in the field.

The U.S. Forest Service says it can spend $150,000 to $200,000 a day on fire support services, which is the stuff you see at the command center, including catering, medical services, supplies and showers. That figure changes depending on the number of firefighters in camp.

Ross Peckinpah is in charge of logistics for California's Interagency Incident Management Team Four. These are teams brought in on major wildfires when many different fire agencies are involved. Team Four was assigned to the Blue Cut Fire.

The Blue Cut Fire smoke plume viewed from Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, California.
The Blue Cut Fire smoke plume viewed from Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, California. (Susan Valot/KQED)

It's Peckinpah's job to get everything from catering to laundry services to the camp and to make sure it's laid out in a way that's effective. For instance, he makes sure firefighter sleeping areas are located away from the kitchen, which is noisy with food prep and generators.

Peckinpah said each fire camp presents its own challenges when it comes to logistics.

"We're having trouble filling a lot of positions because of the draw down in the state," Peckinpah said as he sat by a constantly busy radio in an air-conditioned trailer along the camp's main drag. "I think there are no tents available right now. There are no day sleeping trailers available right now. I can't even get dumpsters for some reason right now."

Peckinpah hoped to have that sorted out with San Bernardino County officials soon. And he'll turn to local fire departments to see if they can help him secure supplies. He pointed out that because of so many fires burning in California right now, including the Soberanes Fire in the Big Sur area, it took more than 48 hours to get fuel tenders to refill fire trucks on Southern California's Blue Cut Fire.

"We look at each incident as a different challenge, a set of challenges," he said. "There's always something that'll cause you to trip up. And so we need to focus sometimes the most simple things."

Simple things like food.

That's Corbett Sneva's specialty. He runs the unit of Latitude Catering that's providing meals for this fire. Sneva's company was called to the fire only three hours after it began Tuesday.

"When arriving at an incident fire command post, we are typically one of the first people to get here because then it also takes us the longest to get set up and get going," Sneva said. "It's essentially bringing a commercial kitchen of the size of a hotel out into some remote areas and getting set up."

He said Latitude Catering makes a majority of its revenue from wildfire catering -- about $6 million during the wildfire season. The company has three hubs with equipment: Lancaster and Corona in California and Grand Junction, Colorado. The food crew from the Blue Cut Fire came from Lancaster, bringing four semi trucks several vehicles and a couch-sized stainless steel smoker.

On Thursday, they were preparing about 1,000 pounds of pork loin, which would be doled out to hungry firefighters with chutney, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes. Sneva said they work like a major kitchen, sending out one plate about every seven to ten seconds during the dinner rush.

But meals at the command post aren't necessarily a typical meal you'd eat at home. The bag lunch was filled with items such as peanut butter and jelly sandwich pockets, with each bag weighing three pounds. A typical wildfire meal is about 6,000 calories to replenish fire crews who've spent long hours battling flames in high temperatures.

Palo Alto Fire Captain Barry Marchisio would be eating one of those meals before heading out on the night shift to fight the fire. He spent a couple of weeks at the Sobrantes Fire in Monterey County, then three days at the Clayton Fire in Lake County. He said his crew was released from there and thought they'd be heading home for a bit of a break. That's when they got the call to head to the Blue Cut Fire.

Marchisio said chasing large wild fires all over the state can be tiring, but he loves it.

"It's like a camping trip with a fire engine instead of a motor home," he said. "Except you have to work your rear-end off."

Marchisio said as he headed for the fire camp's medical clinic to treat blisters on his feet.