Next to a surreal disaster, a surreal city sprouts.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
It’s June 25 in Big Sur’s Andrew Molera State Park. Hundreds of dome tents blister the ground like a mild rash. A blue tarp as large as a small pond sits beneath trailers brought in to the state park to provide shower facilities for the almost 700 firefighters battling the wildfires.
Usually a hike-in state park campground with 24 sites, the field is now a small community called the Basin Incident Command Post that was created to shelter and feed the members from almost 35 different agencies that are fighting the wildfires. Firefighters from as far away as Alaska battle the blaze alongside government branches including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and several municipal departments from all over California.
Usually a rustic campground, Molera is seeing some major technological advancements thanks to the fire camp in place. There are close to 30 phone lines installed and a satellite is providing Internet access.
As a water tender sprays a nearby dirt road down with water, USFS Information Officer Terry Reddy and Logistic Chief of the Incident Management Team Dan Turner give me a tour of the facilities. According to both men, camp life for firefighters has changed dramatically since the two started work in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Back then, you wouldn’t have a trailer,” Turner says. “It would just be one table under a tree where someone would collect people’s time.”
“It was a lot more rudimentary,” Reddy adds.
On the way to show us the dining tent, Turner explains that the catering contractor Port-A-Pit Bar-B-Que serves fully balanced meals for firefighters. A look at the menu reveals that Thursday mornings features a hearty hot breakfast of eggs Florentine, chicken-fried steak and hash browns O’Brien. On Thursday evenings, firefighters are treated to a surf-and-turf dinner. Turner says the variety of food is needed for the men and women out in the field– though it can have a thickening effect on those doing less-active tasks away from the fires. “It’s too much for us here in camp,” he says while patting his belly.
According to Reddy, the food provided to firefighters these days is significantly more substantial than when he started out in the profession in the late ’60s. He recalls being given C-rations left over from World War II and being told to suck on rocks to ease his hunger pangs.
Following a visit with Port-A-Pit chef Jimmy Jackson, who cuts large slabs of pork tenderloin into medallions, we head over to the male and female shower trailers. Each trailer has 10 small, private shower stalls. Once again, Reddy declares that this differs from the old days. “This is a major change from the ’60s,” he says. “We used to jump in the river or go without a shower for days.”
Turner and Reddy explain that most firefighters work as many as 16 hours straight battling the blazes before getting eight hours off. That means most of the men and women stationed at Molera spend their free time eating and grabbing a few hours of sleep in their tent.
Back over at the dining area, firefighters start lining up for dinner. Behind members of the Monterey Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), a prisoner crew from Baseline Conservation Camp dressed in bright-orange jumpsuits and blue baseball caps stands silently behind the others. One inmate of the minimum-security prison, William Dillon, says that fighting the fires has been a wonderful experience for him.
“It’s a good opportunity to give back,” he says. “I’ve been taking [from society]for so many years.”
Over the grumble of nearby generators, Reddy says that the camp’s size will be able to expand and contract quickly to react to fire conditions in Big Sur. There’s even a chance that the firefighters’ camp in Molera will remain for months. “This thing could go until October or November,” Turner says, “when the fall rains come.”