Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bustling tent city is core of fire-fighting effort

Firefighters can?t run on adrenaline alone

Express Staff Writer

The sun sets Sunday over the fire camp on Peregrine Ranch and the fire-scarred mountains on the west side of the Wood River Valley.
Express photo by Greg Foley

On Sunday evening, Aug. 18, the bustling Beaver Creek Fire Incident Command Post on Buttercup Road north of Hailey resembles a scene out of the movie “Apocalypse Now.”
    A blood-red sun sets behind smoke plumes. Lines of bright red flames are visible across seven miles of hills on the west side of the Wood River Valley. The atmosphere at the post is a bizarre combination of spectacular drama and business as usual.
    A constant flow of fire engines, personnel and clipboard-gazing administrators go to and fro on well-worn paths between tents and trailers on the 20-acre site.
    No one in the camp seems to notice the giant wasp-shaped helicopter that hovers nearby above a pond at the Valley Club Golf Course sucking up thousands of gallons of water into its fuselage through a tube before roaring off to douse patches of trees that are bursting into flame two miles away on the steep hills above Hailey.
    An even more ominous sound approaches as a three-engine DC-10 jet air tanker lumbers perilously low across the valley, having dropped a 300-foot-wide, mile-long swath of fire retardant above Croy Canyon west of Hailey.
    Unfazed by the action, fork-lift operators move pallets of water tanks, Pulaskis, fire hoses and Nomex fire retardant clothing into stacks. Burly and blackened hotshot crews, 20-men strong, march single file across the camp to chow lines.
    Welcome to the local incident command post of the fire-fighting industrial complex, a well-organized and complete mobile tent city that was built in 24 hours, and grows day by day.
    As of Saturday, the estimated final cost of fighting the 11-day-old Beaver Creek Fire was estimated to be $15 million, far beyond the total annual operating budget for the city of Hailey.
    Lightning brought the fire to town, but only dedicated and well-trained professionals have kept it from getting disastrously out of control.
    No date has been set for when the fire could be completely extinguished. Many at the camp are saying it will take until the snow flies.
    Incident command posts are built whenever local fire-fighting resources are insufficient to fight a nearby fire on public lands. Fire engines and personnel from federal, state and local agencies are drawn from around the region, based on requests from an ICP commander.
    Since the Blaine County Commission requested a Declaration of Disaster Emergency Assistance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 12, the camp has grown from 200 to about 1,200 firefighters, commanders, administrators, accountants, policemen, cooks, garbage collectors, medics and others. These men and women are posted here, working under U.S. Forest Service Commander Beth Lund, to protect three towns and thousands of homes in the Wood River Valley from destruction. Evacuations have been ordered for 1,600 homes along State Highway 75.
    An entire layer of operations at the command post is dedicated to gathering and dispensing fire information, which is essential for local residents trying to cooperate and stay out of the way while the fire team does its job.
    Public information officers tag team with one another to brief journalists, including Reuters, NBC and CNN and reporters from state and local news operations who have come to report on the nation’s highest priority fire.

“There is not very much that would burn here,
except some tents.”

Danny Sullivan
Supply worker

    Earlier, on Thursday evening, the entire western side of the south- and mid-valley was ablaze. Spot fires were trying to jump the highway, and the ridges north and south glowed with fire. Supply worker Danny Sullivan wondered how defensible the command post would be in the days to come.
    “There is not very much that would burn here, except some tents,” he said, looking down at the dirt beneath his feet. “I told my crew anyway to keep an eye out for falling fire and to stomp it out if anything hits the ground.”
    The incident command post buzzes 24 hours a day with generators that power catering trucks, satellite field stations, and air-conditioned sleeper trailers. There is a copy center and several indoor offices with a wide array of telecommunications services. But most of the action is in the tent and yurt offices at the center of the camp, which resemble a portable town square. The square offers information, operational assistance, safety, supplies, check-ins, finance operations and a medical clinic. Meetings, briefings and more meetings take place here throughout the day.
    The 88 fire engines stationed at the command post were gathered from a list by a Geographical Area Coordinator Dispatch Center that was set up under the auspices of the National Inter-agency Fire Center in Boise. They come from many Idaho towns, including Filer, Gooding, Wendell and Fort Hall as well as all local fire departments in the Wood River Valley.
    “We don’t care what color your engine is as long as you meet the necessary criteria,” says operations worker John Noneman. Specific criteria include engine-boss training levels, personnel numbers and engine pumping capabilities.
    Noneman says many engines have come to town under contract with insurance companies to protect specific buildings. It is cheaper to spend tens of thousands to protect a home, than to spend $500,000 to rebuild it, he says.
    John Maline, a mechanic from Filer, drives a Ford F-550, that’s outfitted to be a fully self-contained and lighted service station on wheels to maintain the hundreds of automobiles and machines out on the fire.
Equipped with a crane, welder, compressor, diagnostic computer and spare parts, Maline’s rig has proven essential. Over the last few days, he has fixed water pumps, welded metal parts, repaired hydraulic hoses and air lines, fixed flats, jimmied locked doors and straightened tie rods warped from driving on rough terrain.
“I could pull an engine out here if I needed to,” Maline says.
    Behind the town square are 500 tents, several school buses, firefighters and dozens of fire engines. These crews have been assembled from various agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Rank-and-file firefighters are either asleep or out on the fire lines.
    Several shower and bathroom trailers are stationed across the camp from the mess tents and catering trucks. Some of them have outdoor sinks.
    “Hygiene and hand-washing are a big deal here,’ says one information officer. “If one person gets sick, hundreds more could also get sick.”
    She opens a small women’s shower stall to show me the spartan interior. “There are no mirrors, so you can’t spend a lot of time in there,” she says.
    The 6 a.m. briefing of Sunday’s planned operations is attended by 200 engine bosses before they and their crews disperse for fire-line duty.
    Fire crews traditionally sign on for two-week assignments with two days in between for rest and relaxation. Elite hotshot crews travel in fire-resistant four-wheel-drive “buggies” to fire lines. They will “go direct” on Sunday morning and hike for miles into the densely forested hills south of Ketchum carrying 50-pound packs and chainsaws. They will work near waist-high flames and drag fuel back into already-burned areas, doing whatever they can to form a defensible fire line before the wind picks up.
    “They will cut down a tree that is on fire, and sleep nearby, if necessary, remaining self-sufficient for up to 36 hours,” says an information officer. “But when the trees start torching from one to the next, they get out of there.”
    Carl Medicine Crow arrived Sunday morning with a 10-man Type II initial attack crew from Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. His crew, contracted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, spent three days fighting a fire near Carbondale Colo., that is now entirely contained. Medicine Crow said the Beaver Creek Fire would pose new challenges.
“This is steep country. It will be a lot of work,” he says.
Monday morning, the incident command post grows denser with an influx of personnel. The post orders up a “spike camp,” a remote operating station of several hundred people and heavy equipment near Baker Creek, which is 20 miles away at the fire’s viciously active northern front.
    The fire has burned 960 square miles of country, is only 9 percent contained and growing. As the morning smoke begins to lift from the valley floor, firefighters survey the ridges where smoky spirals and smoldering ash signal what the day may bring.

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