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Stories From The Aspen Fire – The Camp

HUNTINGTON LAKE – So what do you do when you have over 2,000 people, all working on a dangerous, complex and widely dispersed project, and you need centralized organization and coordination? You build a city, of course.

The Incident Command Post (ICP) for the Aspen Fire is exactly that, a tiny city spread across what is generally the parking lot for the China Peak Ski Resort.

China Peak Resort GateThis is the hub of all activity on the fire, from administrative offices to sleeping accommodations, and it takes a lot of support to put about 1,700 firefighters on the line.

Just over 300 personnel staff the ICP (as of Aug. 2), starting with the “mayor,” Incident Commander David Cooper, District Fire Management Officer from the Bass Lake Ranger District, who is charge of all operations on the Aspen Fire.

Trailer Row at Aspen Fire Camp - photo by Gina ClugstonLiz Sieliet, one of the Public Information Officers at the ICP, took me on the grand tour on Friday, beginning with “Main Street,” or Trailer Row.

“This is where all our planning and operations take place,” Sieliet explained. “Everybody, at one time or another, ends up here.”

The words “fire camp” may conjure up images of sleeping bags under trees and washing clothes in the creek, but in order to support the efforts of firefighters working this hard and for this length of time, major infrastructure is required.

ATT Satellite Truck at the Aspen FireInformation, communications, security, finances, ordering and supply, safety, incident command, logistics and operations, planning, fire behavior analysis, equipment, check-in and demobilization, facilities management, transportation, weather, medical – all the components of managing an incident this large are here.

Computer and phone systems are in place, and an AT&T satellite truck provides service so that communication is possible in this remote location, and (some) cell phones have bars, allowing those who have been detailed to this fire to call their home units.

Radio Tech at fire camp - photo by Gina ClugstonThere is even a finance office where firefighters can turn in their time to their home units and get paid, and another office for dealing with issues such things as rocks falling on vehicles and other types of damage.

Radio communication is crucial at all times, and with over 130 radios in the field and 16 frequencies being utilized for different operations and sections of the fire, plus helicopter and air tanker operations, techs are kept busy repairing and preparing radios for the field.

Briefing at 1800 hours - Aspen Fire - Photo by Gina ClugstonThey go through thousands of AA batteries every day, and also provide “cloning” for radios, to sync new or changed frequencies rather than having to enter them by hand on each unit.

When the day shift gathers for the morning briefing at 6 a.m., they are given new maps of the changes to the fire overnight, along with their assignments.

Mobile Copy Unit at Aspen Fire CampA 30-page incident situation report is printed twice a day, one for the day shift, and a new one for the crews that come on at 6 p.m.

With the maps changing every day, along with weather, heat maps and other printed material that needs distributing, the camp has it’s own “Kinko’s,” a big mobile copying unit. All printed materials can be done on site as conditions and information changes, and crew bosses on up the line always have the latest information.

Safety Officer Tom Pulcher at evening briefingDuring the twice-daily briefings, a representative from each department on “Main Street” talks to the troops about what to expect on the line that day.

One topic from Safety Officer Tom Pulcher on this morning was snakes. In the evening briefing, it was snags. Pulcher also cautions the troops about being wary of the three “F’s” at this stage of the game. Fatigue, Familiarity and Focus.

Crews get their assignments at evening briefing“We’re in the third lap of a four lap race, and you may begin to question if you’ve got what it takes,” he tells them. “This is a grind, and situational awareness is critical.”

Aspen Fire ObjectivesSafety is always the number one priority, and working in this rugged, unforgiving terrain, it is front and center on everyone’s mind.

The safety record on this fire has been excellent so far, and those in charge are focused on keeping it that way, not only for the firefighters, but for the public as well.

Of course the goal is to put out the fire, but there are objectives of very high priority that include protecting wilderness, wildlife, cultural and botanical values throughout the footprint of the fire and the surrounding area. Those objectives are clearly stated and updated, posted on the board at the briefing area.

Mess tent at Aspen Fire

The people working here never forget that all these logistics are in support of the most important part of any fire camp – the firefighters. Working long shifts in heat, smoke and challenging terrain takes a toll both physically and mentally, and when crews come in off the line, filthy and exhausted, they need three things – food, shower and sleep.

Needing 4,000 – 5,000 calories a day to fuel their bodies, firefighters take full advantage of the chow provided to them by the contractors running the food service at camp.

Where Are You From board at Aspen FireIn order to feed 2,000 people, they need 1,500 pounds of meat, 200 gallons of coffee, 1,900 breakfasts, 2,800 bag lunches, 2,000 dinners, 500 dozen eggs, 46,000 bottles of water and Gatorade and 4,000 pounds of ice every single day. There were also waffles, syrup and butter, juices, oatmeal and dry cereal, plus high energy goodies such as raisins and cookies.

While waiting in line for meals, folks can peruse the information board where they’ll find the latest editions of a local newspaper, especially the sports section, along with comics, crossword puzzles and word jumbles for anyone wishing to scratch in the answer to a clue .

Message board at fire campEveryone is also encouraged to add one of the colored push-pins to the map of the United States, showing their home town. California is stuffed full of pins, but there are also pins where firefighters have drawn in their countries, one from England, and one from as far away as Armenia.

All through camp there are colorful little “kites,” stuck to message boards and power poles, lining trailers and washing stations – messages from kids thanking the firefighters “for being so brave,” and “for working so hard to put out the fire,” many with crayon drawings of flames and hoses, and stick fire people. And many that just say “We love you.”

Shower units at Aspen Fire CampOnce crews have refueled at the mess tent, the next order of business is washing off the day’s soot and grime.

There are two full-service shower trailers at camp, each with eight individual shower units and changing rooms.

Shower interior

“We provide shower shoes, paper towels, soap, and a bodywash/shampoo combination,” said the gentleman in charge of the operation. “These are cleaned twice a day and are absolutely spotless. No more bladder bags hanging from a tree.”

The gray water is collected underneath, and fresh water is housed in the center of the trailer.

There is a big box that dispenses paper bath towels, but these are not like any paper towel you have ever seen. They are thick and dense and are the size of a bath towel.

Paper bath towels“These are very good quality,” I am told, “and they are very strong. We have them in case someone didn’t bring their own. They’re real strong, and you can dry off completely with two, three for sure, even the biggest people. I tell them to take as many as they like.”

Once they’re scrubbed the day away at the showers, it’s time to deal with their clothing. The camp has a laundry facility right across the way, where they can take their sweat-soaked, fire-blackened clothes.

Laundry facilitiesThey are given a black plastic bag which is tagged with their name, the date and time and their personal identifying numbers, and the bag is put into chronological order.

It is then laundered and placed in a tent next door, so that when firefighters come in off the line, or have had some sleep and are ready to gear up for their shift, they have clean clothes.

That is especially important when they’re working around poison oak, and any firefighter will tell you that having clean socks is a huge deal!

Mobile Sleeper UnitsThe biggest challenge for firefighters working the night shift “back in the day,” was trying to get enough sleep to make it through the next night. Trying to sleep in the middle of the day was, well, difficult. It was hot, it was noisy, there were bugs buzzing around your head… things have definitely changed for the better.

There are six mobile sleeper units in camp, and the benefits of these trailers cannot be overstated. They are climate controlled, have fresh air circulating constantly, and with no windows, they provide “blackout” conditions. They are practically sound-proof and the interior lighting is a soft blue.

Mobile Sleeper interior - mobilesleeperEach of these units is self-contained, and has 42 berths, stacked three high on each side. Each berth has a reading light, a plug-in for cell phones or alarm clocks, and a curtain for privacy.

A trailer next to the mobile sleepers is “command central,” where personnel monitor the functions of each unit and take reservations for bunks. Crew bosses can stop at the window and tell the attendant how many of his people will require accommodations, and at what time.

Tents in Rancheria CampgroundI was not able to go inside for photos because, of course, people were sleeping! But I was encouraged to get an interior shot from their website.

Some crews have set up in several campgrounds around the area, including Rancheria, Badger Flat and Midge Creek, which have all been closed to the public. For those who appreciate the peace and quiet of the forest, near a beautiful body of water (Rancheria is right on Huntington Lake), this may be an even better situation.

Trucks in fire camp - photo by Gina ClugstonEverywhere in camp there are trucks. Trucks hauling in potable water, hauling out gray water, emptying portable toilets, delivering supplies and equipment.

There are engines and crew buggies, pickups and SUVs, trailers, motorhomes and buses, all are parked neatly in rows. It’s amazingly orderly, considering all the traffic, and the only noticeable noise was the occasional “whoop” from a quick tap on the siren as a crew headed out to the lines.

Supply tent at Aspen FireThere is also a big supply tent, where everything from fire-retardant clothing (Nomex) and hardhats, to gloves and goggles, is received, inventoried, and distributed.

Helping all around fire camp are members of the California Conservation Corp. These young adults do everything from emptying trash and helping in the supply tent, to working in the food service area and trimming brush.

OCCC crews in fire camp - photo by Gina Clugstonn this day they were rolling fire hose, getting it ready to be used back on the fireline. They seem honored to be part of the support efforts for the firefighters, and were all friendly, helpful and very polite. But that’s another story – which I will tell tomorrow…

China Peak Resort Parking Lot - google earth

(This is a google earth image of the parking lot where fire camp is now located.)

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