Fire Camp Goes Up in Oregon

It's an instant city, a makeshift fire camp with power lines, an open-air office complex, a sea of tents and nearly 2,000 temporary residents. 

They work 12-hour shifts, eat, maybe play a game of cards, go to bed, and then do it all over again.

"It's a big campout," Ryan Miller, 18, on the second fire of his career, said Thursday. "It feels good — like you're needed."

This is the base camp and command post for about 1,900 firefighters and support personnel who are working on a 6,000-acre fire just north of the California border — one of several burning across the West. 

School buses carrying fire crews, pickups and semitrailers compete for space. During shift changes it's "chaos, but pretty organized chaos," said Malcolm Hiatt, support branch director. 

The fire was sparked last week, and within a day consumed hundreds of acres of tinder-dry forest land on steep slopes in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain. 

The Oregon Department of Forestry chose Cantrall-Buckley Park, along the banks of the Applegate River, for the camp. Supplies and fire crews soon began arriving, turning the park into a village. 

Trucks brought in portable toilets, sleeping bags, tents, water, batteries, laptop computers, food and beverages and other items. 

Firefighters are given lunch bags with two sandwiches, fruit, a candy bar, an 8-ounce drink and two cookies. Breakfast consists of eggs, toast, cereal, muffins and juice. Dinner on Thursday was halibut, boiled red potatoes and rice.

"It's a tremendous job. It's huge. We fed 1,824 for dinner last night," said Richard Loose of Cove, Ore., who heads the Blue Coyote Catering crew out of Portland. 

His crew of about 75 works out of three semi-trucks and sometimes has a dinner line about 400 long. 

Anna Ilchak, 22, of Portland, serves the firefighters on the long tables set up in the woods.

"You get paid to work out. Great scenery. Free food. My biceps have doubled since I've been here," she said. 

Although such wildfires can have nasty effects, the firefighting effort is a boon to the local economy. Much of the cost of fighting the fire — $3.8 million by Thursday — had gone to stores, contractors and suppliers, said Deena Smith, finance boss for the forestry department.

"We do our best to buy locally. That goes for toilet paper, toothbrushes, chapstick and bee repellant," she said. 

Once the fire is declared controlled, perhaps as late as Sept. 1, the camp will be demobilized. Within a day, all but a cleanup crew and a finance team to pay the last bills will be gone, probably headed to the next big fire.