USA –– Daybreak at Incident Base for the Okanogan Complex fires finds the compounds eight command trailers circled up like Conestoga wagons anticipating an attack.
A wildland fire camp is not unlike the Las Vegas strip: the place never sleeps and the very air crackles with energy, only here everybody plays for high stakes.
Incident Base is situated on the Geestman property, nearly 50 acres of pastureland and floodplain recently purchased by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that borders the Methow River four miles south of Twisp on the Twisp-Carlton Road. It is an instant city populated by firefighters who came from several states and represent many agencies, and the camp is prepared to serve their needs.
The early hour pulses with the hum of portable generators and the rustle of people gearing up to go out, or getting in to go to bed. Bundled up against the morning chill, crew members gather around their group leader for the days briefings.
The Okanogan Complex Leecher, Hunter, Buckhorn and the newly added Goat fire at Alta Lake is classified as a Type II event, so the Northwest Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team has been brought in to coordinate suppression operations for the multiple agencies involved.
Those include the WDFW, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fire Districts 6 and 15 from Okanogan and Douglas counties.
Everyone has a role
On a weekend morning, a welcome north wind is blowing the wildfire smoke southward where it hangs in a gray curtain across the lower valley.
The incident trailers are labeled according to function: Fire Weather/Fire Behavior, Operations, Command, Finance, Computers, Ordering, and Liaison. Casual drop-ins are not encouraged at the no-nonsense, security-conscious camp, but a cadre of PIOs (Public Information Officers) like Michelle King from the USFS Naches office are courteous, professional and informative.
On the sunrise side of command central, scores of colorful dome tents dot the dry grass and serve as barracks for exhausted firefighters.
A water tender weaves through rows of parked vehicles wetting down the dust that comes with 11 consecutive days of hot, dry conditions. Four clustered banks of floodlights powered by Wacker generators provide nighttime illumination.
Surrounding vehicles provide support for everything from meals, showers and medical to security and sanitation.
One of those supply contractors is the 11-member Warm Springs camp crew from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in north central Oregon. Crew boss Theodore McKinley said his is one of 10 such crews that operate out of Warm Springs and are now deployed around the country.
Our role is mainly disaster response, McKinley said. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and to a lesser degree fires.
McKinleys crew dispenses food and drinks to crews heading into the field. Sack lunches are prepared by the catering group, sent over to McKinleys rented refrigerated trailer and distributed from there. MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) have replaced C-rations of bygone days and are required cargo for every field operator in case events conspire to make any other source of food problematic.
Not much rest
A crew from the Washington Conservation Corps has been brought in to construct facilities, erect tents and keep the camp generally ship-shape.
Lead man James Harter and crew supervisors Adam Hein and Russell Greer explain that their group is made up of AmeriCorps members serving one-year internships under the jurisdiction of the Department of Ecology. Everyone on the DNR-dispatched 10-man crew is fire-certified should their services in that arena be needed.
Hein said the WCC is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s and was originally founded to help provide employment for out-of-work loggers.
Engine crew 321 from Mt. Hood has just rolled into camp from a 16-hour patrol on the north fork of Gold Creek. With only eight hours of down time before their next deployment, the three-member crew heads for the breakfast tent and then the rack.
Mike Simmons is the crew boss and a 13-year veteran of operations like this. He and his crew of Lauren Barcas and Richard Chacon, each with three years of experience, have just been reassigned from the Highway 141 fire in White Salmon, Idaho.
Here were mainly protecting the houses, Simmons said of his Gold Creek assignment. Their engine is equipped with a 600-gallon water tank to address any hotspots that might flare up near homes. Asked about grabbing some sleep, Simmons said he and his crew were heading to the Community Center in Twisp.
I understand they have opened up the basement for use as sleeping quarters and that its cool and quiet there, Simmons added. For night operators in particular the heat, light and noise at base camp makes getting adequate rest a concern.
Lots of experience
Jim Perrow of Wolf Creek Enterprises in Winthrop is one of the locals with equipment on the fire. His 3,600-gallon water tender has been busy watering down roads near the fire sites.
I fill up at the fire departments hydrant in Carlton, Perrow said of his water source.
Perrows is just one among many tenders that have been called in from Pateros (H&H, Rainstorm), Republic (Northern Construction), Moses Lake (Rainier Wildfire), Mukilteo (H&H Fire), Burbank (Wildland Firefighters) and other points.
The 20-member crew from ASP in Pendleton, Ore., arrives tired and dirty after eight hours on the line at Alpha Charlie (Leecher Mountain). Boss Keith Parker and his initial attack team have been on site four days and will soon be out for another rotation. After 15 years in the business, Parker said he found nothing out of the ordinary about the Okanogan Complex.
Weve been on fires as far away as Florida, Parker said of past deployments. This year South Dakota is as far east as we have been dispatched.
The temporary residents of Incident Base at the Okanogan Complex are seasoned professionals, for the most part engaged in an inherently dangerous business. Theyve traveled widely and have seen close up what wildfires can do.
For them especially the ghosts of Thirtymile and Colorados 1994 South Canyon disasters are never far away.
The stakes are high; the odds not always in their favor. But this time they appear to be winning.
Photo by Sue Misao: Firefighters line up for their evening meal after a hard days work.