USA– OR- The front line of a wildfire is dirty, exhausting and dangerous, but where would firefighting heroes be without the ones you’ve never seen — the ones most don’t know about?
The U.S. Forest Service runs 15 fire support centers located around the country. One of them is in Redmond, where 56 employees spend their summers battling fires all across the nation, while never going near the flames.
“People think this stuff just appears magically at the wave of a hand,” Cache Manager Eve Ponder said about the hundreds of supplies and gear that meets fire crews out on the scene.
“I was a firefighter for seven years,” materials handler Patrick Tinsley said with a laugh. “I did not know how this worked, how it existed.”
They supply everything it takes to fight a wildfire — from the obvious like hoses and chainsaws, to that stuff the best of us can forget when we go camping: batteries, toilet paper, knives and forks.
The supply kits put together carefully in Redmond can be sent to fires across the country. Ponder said last year, $90 million worth of gear cycled through the center.
“Places like Costco, Walmart, the Supercenters, — they literally don’t have the inventory we do,” Ponder said.
And what goes out comes back. The cache prides itself on wasting very little. Almost everything that’s not considered consumable or expendable will be reused.
After a fire is over, crews send the supplies back — but not quite as neatly as they went out. Boxes and boxes of a jumbled mess. Tens of thousands of items. Where do you begin?
“We start by sorting like items,” Tinsley said. “And it is the cache’s job to inventory all the stuff, credit it to the fire, clean it up, repair it, put it back in a brand-new box, make it beautiful to send out within days.”
Ponder said last year, $19 million worth of supplies came back from the fire lines.
“At the end of the day, we were $4,000 plus or minus of either inventory creep or inventory loss,” Ponder said.
It’s not just meticulous work at the cache, but dirty too.
“People accidentally leave dirty underwear in the sleeping bags, so it’s best to have gloves,” one worker said.
After everything is squeaky clean, repacking is next.
“(Firefighters) will order a chain saw kit and this goes on out,” said cache supervisor David Hagen, pointing to a a box. “Then they open it up, and they’re ready to fly.”
Hagen could put kits together in his sleep.
“Oh, since I’ve been here? I don’t know, it would be in the thousands,” Hagen said.
Indeed, Santa has nothing on this workshop. And once the packages are ready, it’s off to the sleigh — commercial rigs that will be on the road just a couple hours after the products are ordered.
Redmond’s cache will deliver goods around the nation, but most of what they send heads to wildfires here in the Northwest.
“You’re behind the scenes,” explained Ponder of their work. “You don’t get a lot accolades, but you know you’re a major cog in the machine.”
There’s no glamour on this job, certainly no limelight, but that’s okay with them.
“If we’re doing our job correcting, the firefighters don’t know we’re there,” Tinsley said. “Which is exactly why we’re here.”
They’re in Redmond to make a tough job easier.
“I know when they get this kit from the Redmond Air Center kit room that they’re going to have everything they need,” Hagen said. “So it makes me excited, yeah.”
It’s the hard work that only looks like pure magic.
“What makes me feel good is that they must think we’re magicians, and they must just think we’re rock stars,” Ponder said.
Many on the lines probably would echo that sentiment.