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Station fire crews rest up at base camp

A temporary encampment at Santa Fe Dam can hold almost 4,600 people. It consists of a cafeteria, showers, laundry, sleep quarters and a supply depot.

September 14, 2009|Sam Quinones

It was shortly before lunchtime Sunday when the wind shifted and the full bouquet of a truck emptying a portable toilet at the Station fire base camp wafted by Wally Grogan.

"I don't care how long I do this job, I never get used to that smell," said Grogan, moving quickly.

For nearly three weeks, firefighters have battled the Station fire. The blaze, the largest in Los Angeles County history, killed two firefighters, spread over 160,000 acres and has cost at least $90 million to fight. Full containment is expected later this week.

If one person is responsible for making the firefighters' success possible, it is Grogan.

Grogan, a retired Kern County firefighter with a handlebar mustache, a prosperous belly and no-nonsense way about him, is a facilities team leader with the U.S. Forest Service Incident Management Team.

The team's job? "Put a town where dirt was," Grogan said. "I am the mayor."

In a matter of hours, Grogan and his team of 38 set up the Station fire's base camp at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale -- then expanded it to hold 4,600 people at the height of the fire.

Like Gold Rush towns, base camps are set up rapidly to care for people with other things on their minds -- then disappear about as quickly. They have become miracles of modern logistics and marvels of ingenious business niches for firefighters, for whom the existential fight in the hills reduces life concerns to the essentials:

"Where's the shower? Where do I eat? Where do I sleep? That's all they want to know," Grogan said.

The 100-yard, trailer-lined Main Street the team erected included a cafeteria, mobile showers, a copying service and a supply depot stocking picks, shovels, hoses, disposable earplugs, ice chests and sleeping bags.

P.O. Bahn & Sons of Santa Monica arrived to offer mobile chain saw repair and a motto: "Have Fire . . . Will Travel."

There was a finance department (tracking workers' hours and costs), a briefing area (with a flag at half staff for the fallen firefighters), a radio shop (synchronizing hundreds of radios to the same frequencies), and a laundry service that washes clothing -- 2,900 pounds a day during the worst of it -- clean of poison oak.

Thirty-three mobile, air-conditioned, darkened dormitories with 42 beds each represent the latest in sleep technology -- allowing firefighters to crash during the day, insulated from heat and noise. "When I saw that, I said, 'Yeah, that's the way to go,' " said Capt. Carlos Guerrero of the Glendale Fire Department.

There was even someone whose job, apparently, was to post signs that an organic pesticide was being used around base camp to kill ants, and that it included rosemary, peppermint and wintergreen.

Oh, and there were 202 of those portable toilets.

At each base camp, "You wonder, 'Who am I going to see?' " said Mary Hanks, who works for Riverside-based Michelle's Copying Service in a red trailer halfway down Main Street.

"You tend to bond with people even though it's seasonal. It's a seasonal brotherhood."

Fighting wildfires requires an immense amount of copying, mostly to produce the twice-daily "incident action plan," which lists which crews are fighting where and which radio frequency they're using. Such information can be the difference between life and death. The Station fire required as many as 800 of these reports copied, plus accompanying maps, twice a day.

Years ago, a firefighter figured this out and began showing up with copying machines on trucks. Sixteen years ago, Michelle Sadler bought the business and expanded it. The trailer has three high-speed printers, a fax machine, an Internet connection and bunks for employees.

"Every copy is directly connected to those guys on the line," Hanks said. "It's not just a piece of paper."

Working together under great stress toward a common good is what binds the people in this temporary town together.

"It makes me feel like -- how would I say? -- like I'm important," said Mitchell Morton, 21, a California Conservation Corps worker tending the supply depot. "You gotta work fast. But you're helping them put out the fire."

Among the first to arrive at Santa Fe Dam, perhaps even before Grogan, was Carlos Landeros.

Landeros, 23, is a chef with For Stars Catering. Most base camps are set up around food. Landeros has been catering natural disasters with For Stars for two years, since finding the job on Craigslist after moving to Southern California from Las Vegas.

At the height of the fire he helped feed 2,900 people on one shift, then slept in a tent. He wasn't used to these kinds of rugged conditions when he learned the cooking trade in Las Vegas casinos.

"Not a lot of people get to do this -- feed a lot of firemen," he said. "We're like one big family. You see the same people at every fire. It's the same shower people, the laundry people we always see. It's like, 'Hey, what's up?' "

Outside the city limits of base camp was another feature common to most wildland fires these days: T-shirt vendors.

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