NORTH FORK – It takes a village to support hundreds of firefighters battling thousands of acres of scorching flames, and that’s what has sprung up, literally overnight, at the Old Mill Site in North Fork.
Nearly 1,700 firefighters, support staff, overhead and contractors are staged on the 135-acre compound managed by the North Fork Community Development Council, effectively doubling the population of this mountain town.
In order to support the efforts of firefighters working this hard and for this length of time, major infrastructure is required.
It took exactly 24 hours for the mostly empty site to be built up into the little city that is being call “French Town.” This Incident Command Post (ICP) is headquarters for all activity on the French Fire, from administrative offices to laundry services.
As was the case for last year’s Aspen Fire, there is also a heliport on the upper portion of the site, where ships lift off every day to conduct operations on the fire, which is burning along Forest Road 4S81 on the Bass Lake District of the Sierra National Forest.
French Town is set up just as any city of any size would be, complete with a Main Street, says Allen Johnson, one of two Liaison Officers on the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team (SCSIIMT), the people in charge of this incident.
“Everyone working on the fire ends up on Main Street at one time or another,” says Johnson, who has obviously been doing this management thing for a while. All along Main Street are offices occupied by the Section Chiefs, which one can think of as the “Town Council.”
Communications, security, finances, ordering and supply, safety, incident command, human resources, training, logistics and operations, planning, fire behavior analysis, equipment, check-in and demobilization, facilities management, information, transportation, weather, medical – all the components necessary for the management of such a large incident are located here.
The “mayor” of this community is David Cooper. He is the Incident Commander (IC), or as they were called back in the day, the Fire Boss. He is in charge of everything that takes place, both at the ICP and on the firelines. Cooper, who is the Fire Management Officer on the Bass Lake Ranger District, has served nearly 20 terms as “mayor” in his position on the SCSIIMT, and was also the IC of the Aspen Fire last year.
The large trailer at the head of Main Street is the Communications Center. This trailer is provided by a contractor, and set up with all the specialized equipment needed for communicating with all operations on the fire, from aircraft operations or medical emergencies, to delivery of supplies and equipment.
Radio communication is crucial to all aspects of incident management, and with hundreds radios in the field and dozens of frequencies being utilized for different operations and sections of the fire, plus helicopter and air tanker operations, techs are kept busy preparing radios for the field.
They also provide “cloning” for radios when there are new or changed frequencies, rather than having to enter them by hand on each unit. Just plug it in, sync it up and you’re good to go.
To assist in boosting radio signals, a series of repeaters has been put in place on mountain tops for relays.
Every city needs a police department, and this one has a security team that keeps an eye on camp and assists with road guard duties to keep the public out of the fire area. Some are true law enforcement rangers who carry guns, some are prevention people with ticket writing authority who are used to dealing with the public on a regular basis.
And as with any city, large or small, there may be an element of crime. People may sometimes “wander in” and things may go missing, so security is an important part of running the ICP.
There are about 30 computers, plus printers, making it easier for the Management Team to update their twice-daily Incident Action Plan (IAP), which is the local “newspaper.” With conditions changing hour by hour on the fire, the maps change, along with the weather, the resources available and the jobs that need to be done. So an updated IAP is put together and ready for each shift at a mandatory briefing before crews head out to the line.
The IAP is printed out by the on-site “Kinko’s,” a big mobile copying service located just off Main Street. They also print the maps and displays used for briefings, meetings and planning sessions.
At the twice-daily briefing, each of the members of the “Town Council” addresses the troops with their objectives and concerns for the upcoming shift, housekeeping-type issues, and an update on the progress and challenges of the shift coming in off the lines. This is where division and crew bosses get their assignments for the day, while firefighters are having breakfast, filling coolers and picking up lunches.
Safety is always the number one priority, and working in this rugged, unforgiving terrain, it is front and center on everyone’s minds.
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.
There is also a finance office where firefighters can turn in their time to their home units and get paid, and another office for dealing with such issues as rocks falling on vehicles and other types of damage.
Everything on the fire is assigned a number; every piece of equipment, every vehicle and every person. From the time someone leaves their unit until the time they return, they are tracked, and someone knows where they are at all times.
Of course every town needs accountants and financial advisors who track the amount of money being spent. Everything that’s done requires paperwork, and it’s filed in boxes that go to each unit. All the water tenders, dozers, contractor trailers, tents – everything is accounted for every day, and with resources being ordered up and demobilized all the time, and the ICP expanding as the fire grows, it’s a constant job.
The local “Walmart” is a big supply tent, where everything from fire-retardant clothing and hardhats, to gloves and goggles, is received, inventoried, and distributed. Ground Support is the vehicle rental and repair shop, making sure everyone has a road-worthy ride.
All the people working at the ICP 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.
“For Star Catering” runs the local restaurant at French Town, as they have on all three fires managed by the SCSIIMT so far this year. With contracts to feed the crews on movie sets, in addition to large fires, they have several different units of various sizes. Given the size of this job, they arrived at camp with the big guns – a giant restaurant on wheels, plus a large grill, a barbeque smoker and 26 employees.
“We do everything we can from scratch,” says the manager of 27 years, Dave Pena. “We’re doing prime rib tomorrow, and racks of ribs in the smoker, with fresh rosemary chicken after that. Then I’ll have my guys roll about 3,200 meatballs and soak them in sauce for about 6 hours.”
The caterer also prepares food to be delivered to the spike camp at Minarets Work Station, and the other at Minarets High School. Plus, there are lunches that go to the fireline, and with well over 1,000 firefighters on the line, that’s a truckload of lunches because a lot of guys want two.
There are full-service shower trailers at camp, each with individual shower units and changing rooms. The gray water is collected underneath and hauled away, while fresh water is trucked in. No more hanging a bladder bag from a tree and hoping for the best temperature-wise.
Once they’ve scrubbed the day away at the showers, it’s time to head for the laundromat. The camp has a full service laundry facility where firefighters can take their sweat-soaked, fire-blackened clothes.
Debbie Costello of AAA Emergency Services, along with her crew – Elaine, Brandon and Richard – do about 600 pounds of laundry a day. Debbie has been doing this since 2007, and was also part of the ICP on the Aspen Fire last year.
Everyone is given a plastic bag which is tagged with their name, the date and time and their personal identifying numbers. The bags are put into chronological order.
The clothes are 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 bear clover, and any firefighter will tell you that having clean socks is a very big deal.
The 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 and helicopters buzzing around overhead… things have definitely changed for the better.
In order to allow crews to get some good rest, there are mobile sleeper units set up at the North Fork Recreation Center, 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.
Each 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, tablets or alarm clocks, and a curtain for privacy.
Some firefighters have opted for the outdoor experience, pitching their tents on the green expanse of lawn at the North Fork School. After a startling incident when the sprinklers came on the first morning, adjustments have been made and the tent city allows for sleeping without interruption.
After all the engines and crew buggies have departed for the firelines in the morning, the parking lot at the ICP begins to fill up with other types of vehicles.
Everywhere in camp there are trucks. Trucks hauling in potable water, hauling out gray water, emptying portable toilets, delivering supplies, food and equipment, and watering to keep the dust down. Everyone is working to get everything ready for the return of the day shift when they come in off the line tired, hungry and grubby, and to feed and outfit the night shift as they return to camp in the late afternoon.
Young adults of the California Conservation Corps are a big part of camp support, organizing and cleaning the dining area, emptying trash cans, setting up display boards, monitoring parking area, assisting in supply and ground support, and basically doing whatever is asked of them.
There is also a lot of money being pumped into the community through the use of contractors, the rental of the sites and hundreds of visits to the local markets.
“When these guys want to get chew or soda, they need to head for town,” says our tour guide. “And one thing we don’t give them is energy drinks. Those are really bad. Closest you’re gonna get here is a cup of coffee.”