TARKIO — Fighting wildfires in the Montana wilderness is a complex and difficult job that requires hundreds of firefighters, support staff and other experts to keep homes and lives safe. All those groups converge on the same location — the fire camp.
Phil Sneed, a public information officer for the Burdette and Sunrise Fires, explained that for a large camp like the one just outside of Tarkio, land use agreements between land owners and fire crews are made so that camps can be pitched on fields, adding the dozen-odd trailers, semis, and bunches of trucks and fire engines that crowd around the field.
Close to the central cluster of trailers that house the communications, medical, safety and mapping crews are several easels that hold the lists of fire crews and a large brightly colored map of the Sunrise fire. The pink, orange and dark-red coloring are from an infrared image taken during the night. Sunday, because the weather is dry and the wind will be blowing until 5 p.m., the crews will be focusing on the south and southeast portions of the fire to avoid it burning toward structures.
Because the Sunset fire is so large, crews from more than a dozen states are on site trying to contain it. Coming from as far east as West Virginia and north as Alaska, their bright-colored tents spread over the field like mushrooms.
Because each shift is 16 hours long, firefighters rarely get eight hours of sleep, according to Sneed. They have to eat an incredible amount of calories needed to do the hard physical labor of fighting fires (6,600 calories per day, according to the Forest Service website), shower, get medical attention and then fall asleep.
But when they’re awake and at camp, they can visit the medical trailer and get attention for the scrapes and bruises that come with digging fire lines and working with the forest. Blisters are always an issue, according to Connie Weeks, one of the medical crew managers, so Gold Bond foot powder is always supplied. “If it’s wet, dry it; if it’s dry, wet it is the motto” Weeks says.
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It’s been brutally hot recently so the main medical complaint has been heat exhaustion. And with crews coming from lower elevations, the jump can be difficult. “Morning and evening briefings the message is ‘hydrate, hydrate, hydrate’” Weeks says.
The firefighters’ long hours and shifts (14 days on, two off) are brutal. So safety is paramount for everyone on site in order to keep them and the communities they serve safe. Derek Williams and Andy Haner are the two National Weather Service meteorologists in charge of forecasting the dangerous times for the fire so the fire crews can be more vigilant.
“There’s specialized training so we can give verbal weather briefings” Haner explained. “We don’t do a lot of those in the office.”
“Weather affects everything,” Haner continues. “A quarter inch of rain does more to put out a fire than a fleet of helicopters.”
That reminder that even the best laid plans can be no match for Mother Nature is the one that keeps every person in the camp wary and on the lookout for any danger. But until the weather changes, the fire camp will continue to operate under the smoke-covered sky.