Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Command center ‘set up to grow’

Portable ‘town’ established as base camp for firefighters

Express Staff Writer

    Over the last 36 hours, a portable, high-tech village has been constructed on a 10-acre field on Peregrine Ranch about three miles north of Hailey.
    The overall impression here is half circus, half Army outpost. But the only entertainment is an ominous, towering column of smoke about 10 miles to the west that becomes more distinct as the morning progresses and the wind picks up.
    The tent and trailer village that serves as the Beaver Creek Fire incident command post houses and feeds about 200 men and women who have gathered over the last three days to fight the 32,000-acre wildfire that is advancing north past Warm Springs canyon.
    “We are set up to grow,” said Laurel Simos, one of three logistics chiefs in charge of moving equipment to and from the camp to supply firefighters who quickly deployed Tuesday morning after a 6 a.m. briefing.
    “Our job is to make sure they are fed, watered and transported to where they need to go,” said Simos, who answers her cell phone every few minutes to check on supply and personnel deliveries.
    The firefighting crews spread out for many miles over rough terrain in a military-style campaign to outflank the fire, supported by air tankers, bulldozers and fire engines. Cutting fire lines and trucking equipment to where it is needed may give them the upper hand, but as Napoleon Bonaparte once quipped, “Every army fights on its stomach.”
    The incident command post will serve 200 meals three times a day, making sure the firefighters get 6,000 calories per day each. They are served from semi-trailer catering trucks, filling several tented dining halls nearby, beside potable water and coffee trailers. At the other end of camp are shower trailers and bathrooms.
    Catering personnel stay up all night packing sack lunches.
    The central compound at the incident post is ringed by several tent offices, each containing an essential component of the portable government and associated agencies required to organize a major firefighting effort.
    In the operations tent, commanders at laptops oversee air and ground crews in the field. A meteorologist keeps an eye on the weather.
    An ordering tent, shared by an on-site security team, handles shipping of everything from flashlight batteries and rolls of tape to fire hoses, pulaskis, clothing, portable water tanks, and more tents, some of which will be used to establish “spike camps” closer to the fires.
    The finance tent collects time sheets and invoices and manages contracts. A transportation tent, flanked by several four-wheel drive vehicles, oversees the movement of personnel and supplies.
    Most of the firefighters arrive with their own vehicles and tents, as well as fire engines from their local fire departments that have been rented out to fight the fire.
    Nearby is a tent that houses a well-stocked clinic, which is connected by radio to several remote clinics positioned closer to the fires.
    “We get a lot of respiratory complaints on fires,” says a medic. “And also stomach ailments. If something is more serious we can call for a medical evacuation.”
    A communications tent contains more lap-top-connected personnel who oversee the discharge of dozens of hand-held radios that will enable crews to communicate via a repeater station posted yesterday on top of Bald Mountain, and repeaters carried by hand to other suitable locations as the fire progresses.  
    It is important to stay mobile. Yesterday, a spot fire, ignited on a hilltop from blown embers, started about two miles northeast of one of the main fires fronts across Warm Springs Road, very near to where the Castle Rock Fire began in 2007.
    Yesterday afternoon, the spot fire was a quarter-acre in size. This morning, it was 50 acres in size, operations personnel said.
    A safety tent houses personnel charged with keeping firefighters and camp personnel out of harm’s way. An information tent is staffed with public information officers such as Barbara Bassler, who has worked in fire suppression since the late 1980s.
    “Back then we used a Selectric typewriter. Most of the people here today don’t know what a typewriter was,” Bassler said.
     Bassler said many of the higher-ups at the post work together year after year, and are interchangeable, moving from fire to fire. Other crews come together from around the country, including Terry Brown and several other men and women from the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation in Arizona.
    Brown’s crew works 16-hour days, unloading pallets of supplies at a half-acre fenced-in depot near the center of the compound. Brown said he and his crew have signed on for “no less than 21 days.”
    “The money is good,” Brown said. “I hear they may be adding a night shift.”
    Behind the portable town square at the center of the incident command post are satellite receiver trailers, generator trailers, enclosed offices with telecommunications equipment, and a copy center that on Tuesday cranked out 8,000 paper copies of fire maps, action plans, memos and other paperwork.
    The paperwork is necessary to inform the many players involved in managing such a dynamic situation.
    Simos said 180 more people have been requested to fight the Beaver Creek Fire, but she is not sure when the request will be answered.
    “Resources are scarce nationwide,” she said.

Tony Evans:

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