Fire officials don’t like the analogy of war, but when a fire breaks out, they go to battle. And if a fire resists control, firefighters dig in with a tent city replete with services that rival what’s found in a small town. It can be an expensive, complicated operation. MSNBC.com takes you behind the front lines last year at Burgdorf Junction, Idaho.
During a busy fire season, it’s not unheard of for 300 or more fires to break out every day across the nation. Forests and grasslands become kindling for dry lightning and careless campers after days of hot, dry weather.
When a fire first breaks out, a local fire agency will respond. During this initial attack, smoke jumpers, air tankers and a “hot shot” crew usually are dispatched to stop the fire from spreading — an effective plan for 95 percent of fires.
But not for the blaze in Burgdorf Junction. When all firefighting efforts fail, as they did here, the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise takes charge. The office is a 24-hour nerve center that monitors fires across the nation, sets priorities on firefighting and keeps an inventory of crews and equipment.
During normal times, the center has a cache of equipment to outfit 10,000 firefighters in just four hours. But resources were stretched so thin this year that officials sought help from Mexico, Canada and the U.S. military.
GOING TO BATTLE
In fire lingo, everything has a classification — Type 1 being the most urgent.
Type 1 fires are the priority, and they receive every resource available, from helicopters and air tankers to infrared technology, mobile weather stations and the most experienced crews. The organizational flow chart for a blaze of this magnitude looks like a diagram of a large corporation and includes everything from logistics to payroll.
“Each acre of federal land has a fire plan,” says Shari Ascherfeld, a spokeswoman for the coordination center.
There are officials who monitor the weather, lay battle plans, make sure portable toilets are working, even conduct “town meetings.”
Indeed, Burgdorf Junction was a highly organized operation that resembled a small city. There was a helibase, an infirmary, a communications center, even a canteen. All of the main tents sat around the staging area, where briefings are held. The cost for this operation: tens of millions of dollars. Scott Vail, the commander of the Burgdorf Junction fire, said his 18-hour days are ordered around meetings, planning sessions and briefings that give the crews a sense of how their battle is progressing — and whether the weather is aiding them, or the enemy.
On the outskirts of the camp, small tents were scattered throughout the forest where firefighters sleep if they are not on the front lines “spiking out” — lingo for spending the night.
The medical tent provides a barometer for morale. Fire officials say the No. 1 complaint is usually blisters, followed by colds. In the mountains, the temperatures plunge at night and the exhausted firefighters can get sick easily.
Firefighting is difficult in the best of circumstances. “You have to be able to think on your feet,” says Terry Hershey, district ranger on the Salmon-Cobalt Ranger District. “This isn’t a job for people who are indecisive.”
Bobbi Nodell is a general assignment reporter for MSNBC.com.