BOISE, Idaho Normally this time of year, Martin Esparza and his team of 35 wildland firefighters from up and down the California coast would be on a blaze somewhere in the West.
The crew instead has spent three weeks in New Orleans, supporting city firefighters and rescue crews who need fresh water, food and showers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
And Esparza was preparing to deploy again Monday in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, which hit east Texas and the Louisiana coast Saturday with floods and high winds.
“We basically walk into hell, and make it survivable,” Esparza said from Los Angeles.
With fires neither as big nor as devastating this summer as in recent years, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has instead rotated more than 6,000 wildland firefighters, nearly a third its nationwide force, to help with Gulf Coast hurricane relief.
The first time firefighters were deployed for a giant storm was in 1992 for Florida’s Hurricane Andrew. Since then, the logistical and communication skills of so-called “incident command teams” have become a hot commodity in crisis regions that have little to do with digging fire lines or rappelling off a helicopter to stop advancing flames.
“In the last few years, we’ve sent fire-community people to the shuttle recovery,” said Randy Eardley, a spokesman at the Boise fire center. “At one point in our history, we were focused on fire. Now we’ve moved into an all-risk response.”
Wildland firefighters have helped out on everything from quarantining California chicken farms hit by infectious Newcastle disease to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Currently, about 4,300 members of NIFC fire crews are mobilized for hurricane relief. Dozens of satellite phones and more than 4,000 radios half the Boise fire center’s cache have been shipped to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, needed in part because winds and high water knocked out much of the region’s conventional communication system.
One fire team, managing a distribution center in Mississippi, coordinated delivery of 2,600 truckloads of water, ice, food and other goods to 53 counties in six states. Incident management teams are staffing refugee assistance facilities in Phoenix, Ariz., and San Antonio, Texas.
Duties have ranged from making sure the fire department in New Orleans’ French Quarter had toilets to ensuring that air-traffic controllers at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport had weather information.
Firefighters helped provide more than 97,000 meals at the airport to evacuees in recent days, according to the Interior Department.
“When the nation finally started reacting and sending rescue units over, they didn’t send much logistical help, so during the initial push for the first week and a half, a lot of these units went without showers or hot meals,” Esparza said. “We basically create a small town that supports the incident. If you ever visit one of our camps, we find an open lot and bring out the resources we need. Within a day, we can begin providing food, showers and other resources for firefighters or members of the public.”
Across the nation, 8.1 million acres have burned this year, nearly double the 10-year average. But unusual moisture patterns in the West favored big grass fires on the open range, such as the 180,000-acre Clover fire in southern Idaho, which burned rangeland and sage but little else. Rainfall in the mountains soaked vulnerable timber stands, keeping forest fires relatively small.
As a result, many seasonal firefighters ordinarily would be let go about now, as the most dangerous months of fire season have passed. Instead, hurricane season is keeping firefighters on the front lines in a different sort of battle.
“I’d anticipate we’ll have crews there for quite some time,” Eardley said.