Wed June 27, 2012

The High Park Fire Base Camp: A Respite From The Blaze

After the start of the High Park Fire, the population of Ft. Collins jumped by nearly 2,000 as firefighters and support staff from around the country set up camp on the northwestern edge of town.

On Monday the temperature near the National Guard Armory in Fort Collins hovered around 100 degrees. Instead of cooling things down – sporadic winds just kick dust and gravel up into to the air. 

But the armory is home for nearly 2000 firefighters working the High Park fire. Larry Helmerick with the US Forest Service says the camp, and the fire, are the largest he's ever worked. He compares both to what was seen during the Hayman fire of 2002.

“We have tents all over even down towards on La Porte, down towards the west headed toward horseshoe. A lot of these, if they’re hot shot crews, come in and they’re 20 people. and they're all in the same color tent, they’re all bunched together, they work, sleep, everything as a crew. It’s just like a military unit really."

Or like a mining camp straight out of Colorado’s past. There’s a dining tent, supply shed, a communications tent and even a gas station.

Support Staff Keep Base Camp Operating, And Firefighters Equipped

While most of the camp’s inhabitants are out on the fire lines – a support staff of about 200 are busily working behind the scenes – including Mike Molenhower.

He’s a manager with Porta-Pit Catering, which contracts with the US Forest Service to provide food services for base camps. Molenhower says each firefighter gets a hot breakfast, a hot dinner and a sack lunch. However, providing a steady diet of 6,000 calories a day is an enormous task.  But every person fighting the fire gets the same nutritious food, no matter if they’re feet – or even miles from the mess tent.

"We have 800 firefighters that are staying on the mountain. We send them a hot meal in cans, and we send them a cold can breakfast.”

Molenhower has been feeding thousands of firefighters in the rocky mountain region for the past ten years. Each March through October he travels from base camp to base camp.

“Normally you get em anywhere’s from 500 to 700 firefighters, some a little smaller some a little bigger. This is the biggest fire camp I’ve ever [worked on].”

The Supply Building: Chainsaws to Staplers

In the Supply area, which is housed in an old airplane hanger, boxes are stacked almost to the ceiling with everything from water hoses and chainsaws, to sleeping bags and even staplers and office supplies. Everything one would need to run a camp, and battle a fire. 

Larry Helmerick says many of the items come from Ft. Collins and the surrounding area.

“As much as we can buy locally is what we do. We want as much of the benefit to go back to the community.”

While there are thousands of items in the supply area to give firefighters the tools they need, keeping them healthy is also a key component of the camp. 

Medical Unit Treats Everything From Headaches To Major Trauma

The camp medical area is run by Steve Camarata, who just arrived with the new Incident Management Team earlier this week. So far he’s treated mostly minor injuries like stomach aches, but much like an army MASH camp, he’s ready if more life threatening injuries occur. 

“Down here we’re sorta like a Walmart Pharmacy you know, giving out over the counter things. However, the priorities that we really try to focus on, is if something more serious happens up on the fire, we’re ready to deal with that, and get the firefighters to the appropriate medical facility as soon as possible within the golden hour." 

Since it’s so early in the fire season, Camarata says firefighter health and morale is pretty high. But, that could change once the season begins to drag on.

Despite Early Fire Season, Morale Remains High

Back at the mess tent, Owen, a worker with Porti-Pit Catering couldn’t’ agree more.  He stands in a cramped, sweltering tent getting box lunches ready for the spike camps deep within the fire zone. 

“I think honestly the morale is extremely high. I’ve been to a lot of different places or whatever. There’s something that’s very unique about this experience and humbling about this experience. You’re literally fighting a battle, you can see the wear and tear on their faces, but it doesn’t get them down…it doesn’t.”

It could take until the end of July to fully contain the High Park fire which is closing in on nearly 90 thousand acres burned. Incident commanders say the number of firefighters make fluctuate based on the needs of other fires burning around Colorado and the west. But the camp will be here until the last firefighter goes home.