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THE WORLD | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Base Camp a Virtual City of Supplies

Weary firefighters at the San Bernardino Mountains site find everything they need, from foot powder to a Laundromat.

October 31, 2003|Janet Wilson, Hector Becerra and Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writers

The soot-crusted firefighters trudge into the San Bernardino base camp by the hundreds -- coughing, eyes watering, hungry beyond belief and exhausted. They wash, they eat and then they seek out what many call the most prized supply of all: foot powder.

"We live and breathe by Gold Bond," said firefighter Allen Lee, 49, as he arrived at camp Thursday after surviving on a single sack lunch for 24 hours. The soothing powder is critical "between your legs, on your feet, in your shirt, everywhere -- all you do is chafe, chafe, chafe."

At this virtual city on the former Norton Air Force base, they can find cases of Gold Bond or a new blade for a melted chain saw. They can even get their clothes washed at an industrial Laundromat.

The base camp was erected to meet the needs of firefighters -- from Blistex, to batteries, to heaping plates of eggs and potatoes and a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee.

At its height of operations Thursday, about 2,600 firefighters and support staff assigned to the Old fire in the San Bernardino Mountains called this four-block expanse of white canopied tents and trailer-trucks their temporary home.

Scores of contractors and suppliers, hired by federal, state and local agencies, offered their mobile wares like some outdoor convention, one that costs $300,000 a day.

"We build miniature cities and supply them," said Dave Estes, a U.S. Forest Service Supply Management officer.

Also Thursday, a 28-foot-long tractor-trailer carrying food and supplies wended its way up twisting Highway 38 to downtown Big Bear to set up a satellite camp by nightfall for up to 1,000 worn-out firefighters, bulldozer drivers and other emergency workers.

Its cargo included 500 sleeping bags, wool blankets, tools and hatchets, hundreds of bottles of water and Gatorade.

This instant camp will soon become the busiest place in the all-but-evacuated mountain town, said Karl Rogge, the deputy logistics chief in Big Bear.

Until Thursday night's camp opened, firefighters have been so busy defending mountain communities that they had not taken time for the hourlong drive down to the base camp. Instead, they relied on periodic drops of food and supplies near the fire lines.

Firefighter John Hedlund, 23, of Yreka had gobbled the big hoagie in his sack lunch by early Wednesday. He and his crew were wondering where their next meal would come from; a few resorted to eating their emergency military rations. Then, "some guy in camouflage" dropped off a pot of hot chili, an urn of coffee, bowls, cups and utensils on the side of the road Wednesday night.

"It was awesome," Hedlund said of his late-night dinner.

The food drop came from a traveling convoy -- including gasoline tanker trucks -- that has ferried supplies up the mountain all week, delivering food, clothing, tools and other necessities.

It takes 7,500 calories to sustain a working firefighter for 24 hours, said Larry Benson, a Department of Forestry spokesman.

"That's a whole bunch of food," Benson said.

The massive offering for Thursday's dinner at the base camp included 200 gallons of marinara sauce, 1,000 Italian sausages and 400 pounds of dry pasta, said Amy Zelinski, a manager with OK's Cascade Co., the camp's food service firm. The resume of her Bellevue, Wash.-based firm includes feeding evacuees after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Zelinski said the company got the call Saturday night to respond to San Bernardino and within four hours had packed the trailers and was headed south from its Reno outpost.

Her crew cooked 1,000 pounds of hash browns and 2,000 slices of French toast Thursday morning.

She's been packing nearly 1,000 box lunches a day. And an order for 500 steaks has been placed for a Friday night dinner in Big Bear.

"We're not trying to order luxury food," logistics chief David Gesh said. "But [the firefighters] are working hard and when they get in here they need protein."

Most of the supplies serving base camps from San Bernardino to San Diego come from a sprawling "cache site" in Ontario, one of 11 warehouses around the nation operated by the U.S. Forest Service.

Estes, the Southern California manager, said his 102,000-square-foot facility has been sending out 10 to 12 tractor-trailers a day packed with supplies.

"I have 6,000 sleeping bags and 6,000 sleeping pads to go with them," he said.

But he's running low on fire hose at the moment and is trying to locate more nozzles.

Back at the San Bernardino base camp, supplies and services were bountiful. But regardless of the myriad food, supplies and other services at his disposal, firefighter Luke Terry, 41, was most concerned about his feet.

Like colleague Lee, Terry was on the prowl for foot powder.

"The most important thing you do is take care of your feet," Terry said. "Foot powder and socks, that's what's most important."

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