BUTTE -- It takes about 6,000 calories per day to keep a wildland firefighter in peak performance during fire season.
“It’s not only getting them good food, it’s getting them a lot of food,” said public information officer Lisa Jennings, one of four PIOs who hosted camp tours under a blue sky on Tuesday at the Bear Lake Fire incident command post outside the tiny town of Wise River, 36 miles southwest of Butte.
The town’s airport has morphed into a tent city since the lightning-caused fire sparked Aug. 20, boasting such amenities as a mobile kitchen, eight showers, a communications center (also known as “cell on wheels” or “COW”), a medical tent and several larger tents to facilitate administration, operations and logistics.
On Tuesday, the 53-foot-by-9-foot mobile kitchen rustled up breakfast for 309 people, including more than 130 firefighters. The menu had a distinct regional flavor, highlighting foods members of the Southern Area Gold Team – comprised of 13 southeastern states – would likely savor.
Cook Tim Ulrich and staff served up 950 eggs, 320 biscuits, 16 gallons of sausage gravy, eight gallons of grits, 60 pounds of fresh fruit and 320 chopped steaks.
Steve McBrayer, general manager and fire unit leader of Tucson, Arizona-based Latitude Catering, said the company’s three self-contained mobile kitchens have been contracted for nine fires this season in Montana, California, Oregon and Washington. During the 2014 fire season, the kitchens cooked 586,000 meals.
Tom Leonard and his wife, both of Helena, were visiting Butte when they read about the public camp tours in The Montana Standard. The retired teachers’ interest was piqued as they do a lot of four-wheeling in the area. The couple, along with 8-year-old miniature dachshund Lizzy, was among about 25 people who attended Tuesday’s afternoon tour.
“I think this is great they did this – informative and spot on with what they showed. I think it’s great for the public,” Leonard said, adding that he had offered up Lizzy as the fire camp’s official mascot.
Visitors got to see what a typical wildland firefighter wears on the front lines. The personal protection equipment includes gloves, a hard hat, eye and ear protection, leather boots, and pants and a shirt made from Nomex, a flame-resistant fiber. Water and food are carried in a backpack, and a portable fire shelter is cinched around the waist.
Nick Brookshire, 34, Matt Mathisen and Leighton White, both 52, drove the 800 miles from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to help battle the Bear Lake Fire in the Pioneers Mountains of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The full-time firefighters are veterans: Brookshire has worked 15 fires since 2010; Mathisen has worked 10 in the past five years; and White has seen more than 100 since 1988.
“Montana is beautiful country and it’s fun work. That doesn’t sound too profound. It’s as simple as that,” Leighton said.
The trio has been assisting with structure protection such as foil wrapping some of the ranch homes and making improvements to back country roads and trails during 12-hour shifts.
“We’ve seen a lot of smoke and we’re preparing for Armageddon, but it hasn’t come yet,” Mathisen said.
The camp’s amenities – or luxuries, as Mathisen called them – have been “pretty nice.” On smaller fires he has had only MREs (meals ready to eat) and gone without a shower for an entire deployment. When he worked a 21-day stint on the Honey Prairie fire in Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in 2011, crews had to be on guard against alligators that thought they were prey. The 306,000 acre fire burned for about a year.
Local families have even stopped by with items like Gold Bond powder and wipes.
“It’s the little things that keep us happy,” Mathisen said.
Connie Holland said the appreciation is reciprocal. She and her husband own the Wise River Mercantile on Highway 43 in Wise River, and since the fire started two weeks ago the store has seen a 10 percent increase in sales.
The most popular items are snacks, drinks, trinkets from the gift shop, T-shirts, coffee cups and jewelry. When the camp was first getting established, the real need was portable gas.
“They’re all really nice people,” Holland said. “I think they’re having a hard time adjusting to our cold mornings and evenings.”
She said the air was pretty smoky until Saturday’s cold front moved through. Sunday morning brought blue skies and sun. Holland said, “it was so nice.”
But with only 35 percent of the 6,381 acre fire contained as of Wednesday, Holland expressed concern about business taking a hit this holiday weekend – typically the store’s busiest.
“I really don’t have any idea what it’s going to be like. Our business drops off for the winter. We really count on this weekend,” Holland said.