In 1986, Bob Pitcher was working out of his Montana-based restaurant when he received a request from the U.S. Forest Service to prepare sack lunches for wildland firefighters.
Pitcher had “no idea what they were talking about,” but managed to fill their request and deliver lunches to a group of appreciative firefighters.
“Wait a minute, this is fun,” Pitcher thought to himself.
The experience inspired Pitcher to cofound Big Sky Mobile Catering, a mobile catering business that provides emergency and routine services to federal and state agencies during emergency operations — including the Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings.
“We’ve been to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, we’ve done floods, you name it: Anything that’s a disaster relief, that’s where we go to,” Pitcher said.
Pitcher and his staff are just one of several contractors working at the 15-acre base camp on Oceanview Drive in Harbor for the Chetco Bar Fire, which has burned nearly 180,000 acres since July 12. Nearly 1,500 people, including personnel from agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Coos Forest Protective Agency, find food, shelter and showers at the camp, as do fire management and support people.
At the entrance to the camp, just behind the security tent, is a series of khaki tents used for human resources, laundry, medical aid and finance services. There are also two shower units situated on opposite ends of the sprawling camp that can serve up to 35 men and women at any given time.
An array of tents at the western portion of the camp provide sleeping quarters for weary workers and firefighters coming off 16-hour shifts.
“It may not be a Hotel Ritz when you go to bed, but I’m living in a tent out here, too, It’s no exception for me,” said Public Information Officer Terry Krasko.
On Thursday afternoon, the camp was a ghost town as most of the firefighters were out battling the fire, but upon their return, Krasko said, the camp jumps to life
“Sometimes these camps are the biggest town in the county,” Krasko notes. “I’ve seen camps that have held five and six thousand people in them. There’s multiple caterers, and they’re just running lots and lots of people. This is a pretty good-sized camp, but I’ve seen camps that are three times this size.”
Pitcher and his team are hard at work preparing dinner for the camp inside their 48-foot kitchen inside a semi-trailer. The night’s menu was New York Strips, and the caterers had 1,100 sirloins to cook. On a typical day, Pitcher’s team goes through 700 to 800 pounds of protein, 600 pounds of vegetables, 800 pounds of potatoes, and 500 pounds of eggs.
While breakfast and dinner is served at camp, the firefighters are provided a sack lunch to take with them to the frontlines.
In addition to making 4,200-plus meals a day, Pitcher’s team has to abide by strict government guidelines when serving the firefighters, such as making sure they get more than 6,000 calories a day.
“It has to be the top quality of whatever our distributors have,” Pitcher said. “It’s got to be the lowest fat content, or the highest quality. Even on a can of beans, there’s three tiers within a distribution. We have to have the top tier of everything. The firefighters eat the very best that we can buy.”
Pitcher leads a staff 28 people, each of whom works a 16-hour shift. To prepare breakfast, the team gets up as early as 1 a.m. each day. Workers typically fit in cat naps throughout the day, but are often woken up at a moment’s notice due to the unpredictable nature of the job. Earlier that day, the team temporarily suspended their operation to create 100 emergency sack lunches in 15 minutes.
Workers have the option of taking time off whenever they need, but they rarely do.
“They want those hours,” Pitcher said. “These guys try to cram a year’s worth of work into four months. We have a lot of school teachers, we have ski instructors, we have people that have their own little businesses. All of them have different jobs at all times of the year, but they work those jobs around this job.”
And when the Chetco Bar Fire is eventually extinguished, Pitcher and his team will have little time for respite as they’ve already been inundated with requests to drive out and provide services to camps battling Hurricane Harvey.
For Pitcher, however, the long days and months spent away from home are all worth it.
“The firefighters appreciate it,” Pitcher said. “That’s why I do it.”
Just as important to the camp however, are the workers tasked with maintaining the hygiene and cleanliness of the camp.
Originally the base camp was separated into two camps — at Brookings-Harbor High and the Kite Field of Port of Brookings — but the camp at the port was moved because the cramped conditions may have lead to “camp crud” — a term used to describe a range of illnesses from digestive upsets to respiratory problems that spread through camp.
According to Krasko, who has several years of firefighting under his belt himself, the leading cause of camp crud stems from people not washing their hands often.
A number of foot pump hand-washing stations and trailers with wash basins and soap dispensers are stationed throughout the camp. Workers are tasked with wiping down handrails and seats after being used, in addition to keeping soap dispensers full. Many portable toilets are located throughout the camp, and runoff water from showers and various basins are collected and transported by a tanker to a local plant for treatment.
“Use these restroom, wash your hands, that is the single best way to keep infection out of a hand,” Krasko said.
Just a little ways down Oceanview Drive lies a secondary camp, where one of the most critical components of the camp, the supply chain, is located.
According to receiving distribution manager Denise Croker, the purpose of the supply chain is to provide the base camp with equipment such as fire hoses, fire retardant pants, chainsaws and even crutches. Numerous boxes of equipment are stacked high next to the supply chain’s distribution center (which doubles as the tent for workers’ quarters). If an order can’t be filled, Croker forwards it to the ordering department, where employees buy the product locally.
“We can meet your needs, maybe not your wants, but we can meet your needs,” Croker explained.
Like the base camp, work at the supply chain starts early, and employees work 16-hour shifts.
“We turn the lights on at 5:30 a.m., we start getting orders from the line probably ten after,” Croker said. “We bill out the orders, the big hot commodities, the thousand-foot hose kits which have lots of parts and pieces to it; then we get in a supply truck unload it, get our yard back in order, and start the process all over again.”
For Croker, who spent many years as a firefighter, working at the camp is a way for her to continue contributing to the effort.
“I’ve been in (firefighting business) for 32 years, so this is the best way I can give back right now and still stay engaged in what I’ve done my whole career,” she said. “I’ve been on the line. I’ve done the hand tools. I’ve operated dozers. This is just the way, as I’ve aged gracefully, to give back and stay engaged in what I’ve done for my career.”
And while the amenities aren’t much, there’s comfort to be had in the fact that she doesn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning.
“The days are long. I have to keep reminding myself that I signed up for it. It doesn’t do much good to bitch about it. You just keep going. I’m getting to an age where I prefer a bed but my tent is fine, and I have air mattresses. It’s a choice,” she said. “Sometimes a shower would be nice, but we have that capability here.”