Home fires burning 

The risky business of fire camps

Drop over the right-bending bluff on Mullan Road some five miles west of town and a surreal apparition materializes from the choking haze of smoke: a city of tents, laid out in grids on the dirt-and-knapweed field along Kona Ranch Road. Looking like a cross between a Bedouin village and a military outpost, this is the central camp for the federal government’s multi-agency attack on the Black Mountain 2 fire, the blaze just west of Missoula that has so far robbed three families of their homes and the rest of us of our pink lungs and mental stability.

There is no disputing the fact that the Black Mountain and other fires—the fire map of the area found on the Forest Service Web site could rightly be accompanied by Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”—have exacted a considerable toll on the local economy. As a region that thrives on the outdoor activities of residents and tourists alike, the ongoing closure of forest lands, combined with the general inactivity resulting from the oppressive smoke, has thrown seasonal coffers out of whack for an untold number of businesses. A drive up the Blackfoot River last week told the story: A recreation corridor normally pulsing with the combined activities of hundreds—if not thousands—of tubers, boaters, swimmers and fishermen, was a ghost river with nary a soul upon it.

Like most clouds, though, our cursed pall of smoke has an upside, a lining that in this case may run more toward a golden hue than silver. Because of the danger posed by wildfires running rampant in areas that buttress residential sectors, the federal government pulls out all stops to ensure that these fires are contained as quickly as possible. And like any of its large-scale operations, the government’s firefighting efforts come with a hefty price tag: As of Tuesday, the cost of fighting the Black Mountain fire alone stood at $7.8 million, and the cumulative cost of fighting all the major fires in the area (Black Mountain 2, Cherry Creek Complex, Cooney Ridge, Fish Creek Complex, Gold 1, Mineral/Primm, along with the fully contained fires Dirty Ike and Strawberry Mountain), registered a whopping $45.6 million and counting.

But before you groan and budget for increased federal taxes next year, realize this: According to estimates, between 70 and 72 percent of firefighting costs are spent on private contractors, those companies and individuals who, though not on federal payrolls, make virtually everything in and around fire camp possible. And while some of the larger operations at camp are provided by companies contracted nationally with the Forest Service (catering and laundering services at the Black Mountain fire camp, for example), those who write the checks on Uncle Sam’s account have been instructed to funnel those dollars into the areas most affected by the fires whenever feasible. In other words, to us.

Ed Cheff rolls into the Black Mountain fire camp at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22. He’s bedraggled, his red-rimmed eyes belying a 3 a.m. wake-up stacked on two continuous weeks of busting his butt. Cheff runs a logging company out of Missoula, and owns a home on the hills overlooking the camp. When fire restrictions shut down his logging operations, things looked bleak—until a lighting storm ignited fires and put his company back to work.

Cheff estimates that he has 30 pieces of big equipment—bulldozers, graders, excavators, skidders, and the low-boys to haul them—out on the fires around town; he’s in camp to deliver yet another rig that will head up to work the fire lines around Black Mountain, this one pulled from the Gold 1 fire up the Bitterroot Valley earlier in the day. He’s hired six or seven extra employees to handle the load, and has farmed out work to his subcontractors.

But though the money for his equipment and drivers is substantial—depending on their size, manned machines are contracted out at a rate of $1,000-$2,500 per 12-hour day—Cheff says that fire work is no easy road to financial success.

“Sure, you make lots of money,” he says, “but the hours you work are very long and very hard.” And those hours come with a price measured in mechanical as well as human terms; conditions for running big machinery along a fire line are often less than ideal, and machines run hard and heavy in the heat of battle.

“You run the shit out of them,” says Cheff of his steel and iron goliaths. “When it’s time to go, you go.”

Unlike Cheff, who had registered his machines with the Forest Service prior to the fire season and was on the list of early calls when the fires kicked in, Gary Linton came to work in the Black Mountain camp through a circuitous route. The owner of GTL Excavating in Missoula, Linton was going about the business of a normal day when he received a call from the Forest Service about a week after the fires started. The camp was in desperate need of water tenders to keep the dust down, and a friend and fellow business owner already in camp mentioned Linton’s name.

Since then, Linton and his wife have manned the tender at camp, wetting down traffic areas in a near-continuous loop—a job that Fire Information Officer Pete Janikowski says may seem incidental but is in fact crucial. “We’ve got so much equipment here—the command tents have phones, fax machines, copiers, printers and computers—that it becomes a real problem when it’s dusty,” says Janikowski. “And let me tell you, the first few days in here, before we got the tenders out, were a nightmare.”

The Lintons also hired out a road grader, building a pad for the weed wash (vehicles and equipment are hosed down as they come off Deep Creek to prevent the spread of noxious weeds) and culverts at the camp’s entrance. “It’s definitely a help to our income,” says Linton, “very much worth our while.”

While Linton’s wife has covered the time driving the water tender when Linton needs to tend his regular weekday business, others have relied on the good will and understanding of their customers for delays caused by camp work.

Rick Cornell is a general contractor out of Corvallis who has done maintenance work in the past on the Forest Service building in Hamilton. When his contact in the Forest Service asked if he’d be interested in working as a fire-camp carpenter, Cornell checked with his clients to find out if he could put those jobs on hold. When they learned that he’d be assisting the firefighting effort, every one of them gave the green light.

“All the people I work for were very understanding, so it hasn’t hurt my income at all,” says Cornell, who makes “a little more” working fire camp than he does at his regular job.

Cornell, who built just about every wooden structure at the camp, including telephone booths, billboard stands and a briefing stage, worked the fire camp for the Black Frog Complex along the Idaho-Montana border for several days before arriving at the Black Mountain camp. He says that the experience has made him a better carpenter (“They just tell me what they need, and I figure out a way to get it done”) and has brought some interesting people into his life.

“I’ve run into some of the nicest people I’ve met in the last 10 years here,” he says. “I’ll be back next time there’s a need.”

Deep inside the bowels of the Lolo National Forest building at Fort Missoula, a group of eight people feverishly works the phones in a makeshift office. They are a Forest Service “buying team,” one of 10 such groups who travel the country specifically to purchase everything needed to fight wildland fires.

In testament to the unholy proliferation of fires around our besieged burg, a second buying team works in an upstairs room. A single team normally buys for an entire command post and is capable of handling four to five major fires at a time. But one team could not write checks fast enough to cover the nine large fires raging here, so a second team was brought in and their duties separated; downstairs covers large equipment and drivers, upstairs handles the wide array of supplies needed at the nine camps.

Judy Reddin, of Fresno, Calif., heads the upstairs buying team. “We buy everything you can think of to keep camp and our firefighters going,” says Reddin. “Water, juice, sports drinks for the firefighters. Equipment rental and office supplies for the incredible amount of information that’s generated on a daily basis. Chainsaw parts. Medical supplies for injured firefighters…the list goes on and on.”

According to Reddin, the buying teams are instructed to purchase as much as they can from local businesses, part of a government effort to help the economy of those areas most affected by fires. “We can’t always do that, especially when we need a large volume of stuff in a short time,” says Reddin, “but we buy from local stores whenever we can.”

Stew Weis is the owner of Ace Hardware in Missoula, a chief supplier for the fire camps. Ace provides everything from cleaning supplies to coffeemakers, coolers and jugs for the camps. Like logger Ed Cheff, the fires had put a crimp in Weis’ business. “Our regular business has been significantly off during this smoky period,” says Weis, “and I imagine most local businesses have felt the sting. People have basically hunkered down during these health advisories.”

As a longstanding account, the Forest Service has been a regular customer of Ace Hardware for years. But the increased spending to equip this year’s camps have offset the losses to Ace’s business due to the fires, and Ace has continued a trend this year of improving sales figures. “Our numbers are now up a bit for August, but we’ve been having a good year all along. We’re bouncing back a bit from the hit we took when Home Depot moved in.”

Office City, a downtown office supply store, is another beneficiary of fire camp needs. The store has supplied much of the paper, pens, easel pads and other supplies that feed the reams of information generated on a daily basis by data-crunching fire personnel.

“I wouldn’t say that it dominates our daily receipts,” says Greg Lustgraaf, who handles the Forest Service account for Office City, “but it’s a significant bump, obviously. It’s helped us out, no question.” A good number of the buses that transport fire crews from the camps up to the fire lines—or from camp to the waystation at the fairgrounds set up for incoming and outgoing firefighters—belong to longtime Forest Service collaborator Beach Transportation. Greg Beach says that 30 of his company’s fleet of 100 buses were working fire camps during the peak period, representing a financial shot in the arm for his company.

“Every extra trip you take is important,” says Beach, “especially because fire years are such a hit or miss. You’ve got to get everything out of them that you can.”

Still, the nature of the job can make it difficult. “It’s good work, but it’s tough on people, and it’s tough on equipment,” says Beach, adding that some of his drivers don’t like camp duty despite the extra pay, because of the long hours and added risk of driving in fire areas.

Personal risk isn’t a factor for the folks at Anders Business Solutions in Missoula, but the daily grind has been magnified in a big way. Anders’ inventory of office equipment—mostly copiers, fax machines and the like—has been nearly exhausted by the fire camps’ needs, and the company has been at the Forest Service’s beck and call.

“We’re giving the camps 24/7 service, and that means a lot of long hours for everybody here,” says Jim Davenport, Anders’ general manager. “When we get an urgent call, for an extra unit or even for things like toner for copiers, we drop what we’re doing and do whatever it takes to get things going again.”

Because they charge for mileage and time, Anders makes somewhat more on the units they rent to the fire camps compared to their regular customers, who get free delivery. But again, the extra income is partly offset by the abnormally rough conditions in the field. “It’s a pretty abusive environment for our equipment,” Davenport says. “At times, we’re going out every other day to clean copiers, where in an office environment it would be every six months. And fire camp machines require major teardowns to clean and maintain when we get them back.”

The benefits of working and supplying fire camps extend beyond simple monetary gain, though, for many of the locals involved. While the fires and debilitating smoke have made many Missoulians feel powerless in the grip of nature’s fury, those who have been put to work take pride and gain a sense of accomplishment through their direct involvement in the firefighting effort.

“Everybody’s pitching in, knowing that it’s a short-term deal,” Davenport says. “And I think it’s motivating to know that you’re doing a small part to help out the camps and get these fires out.”

“We’re able to handle the busiest of days all the time,” says Ace Hardware’s Weis. “There’s a certain amount of pride in being able to be there for the Forest Service and accommodate their needs.”

“We’ve been a part of this community for a long time,” says Greg Beach, “and when homes are threatened in Missoula, we like to help out in any way we can. Our buses are an integral part of the firefighting effort, and we take pride in that.”

Lustgraaf, of Office City, says that working with the fire camps reminds him of his younger days working for the Bitterroot Forest. “Western Montana has been hit so hard by these fires, so there’s always a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride that you can help out in any way.”

“It’s just great to be down here, as a part of the whole thing,” says GTL Excavating’s Linton, as he readies his water tender for yet another run over the bone-dry dirt at the Black Mountain camp. “You get a real sense of what’s going on, what they’re doing to help us all out.”

But according to Janikowski, the camp’s information officer, it’s the people and businesses of Missoula that are doing the helping. “When things like this happen, people want to believe that they can make a difference, and they really can here. Every one of the people supporting this camp, from the water tenders to the carpenters to the workers getting us our supplies, is a major key to the suppression effort.”

It may not be making lemonade when life hands you lemons, or even making hay while the sun shines, but the long hours and sketchy conditions endured by those assisting the firefighting efforts are paying off in their wallets and in their hearts. Still, you get the sense that not many will be overly disappointed when this gravy train pulls out, gone for another year. Or more, if we get lucky.

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