- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - A Coconino County park has become home, sweet home for several hundred firefighters from around the country. The camp has its own mobile kitchen, weather station, finance department and safety department.

The mobile kitchen set up at Fort Tuthill is run by Huston’s Catering from Kanab, Utah.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” said kitchen manager Clayton Culter. “I love the randomness of it. I like being able to get up and go to remote locations.”

But the real reward is serving the firefighters. “The firefighters are always so grateful. It’s really the most rewarding part of this,” Culter said.

It’s a lot of hard work serving hundreds of firefighters, Culter said. His crew starts cooking three hours before meal time in order to make sure they have the food hot and ready.

“We like to do everything fresh,” he said. “I don’t like to set up steam tables.”

So the kitchen keeps on cooking while other members of the crew dish out the food to waiting firefighters.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but the key to it all is having a great crew. We can serve around seven firefighters a minute,” Culter said.

And this isn’t your typical cafeteria food. The meals vary each day. Dinner can include fresh fish, steak, chicken or barbecue. There’s also plenty of steamed vegetables and fresh salad.

“We always include a vegetarian option,” Culter said.

It usually takes at least one 48-foot trailer of food to feed all of the firefighters for one day, he said.

At the same time as Culter’s crew is dishing out food to the firefighters in the camp, they’re putting together more than 390 boxed dinners for the firefighters still out in the field.

While the firefighters are out in the field, Mark Stubblefield from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is keeping an eye on the weather. He keeps track of the weather conditions for the firefighters on the ground as well as in the air.

“Right now, I’m keeping an eye on these thunderstorms to the east,” Stubblefield said, pointing to a line of green splotches on his laptop screen. “I want to make sure they’re not going to affect the conditions here.”

He is also watching a low pressure system that is bringing a line of storms into California. Those storms could bring some much needed rain and cooler temperatures into the air before the end of the week, he said. They could also bring lightning, and landslides if there’s too much rain.

Wednesday night the firefighters got a bit of a break, Stubblefield said. An inversion pushed the wind back down into the canyon and kept the fire from spreading over the edge of the rim. It also gave the firefighters time to dig fire lines.

Each hotshot crew also has its own weather observer, who frequently checks the humidity and air temperature in the area they are working, he said. This allows them to adjust their work on the spot to meet the current conditions.

While Stubblefield is watching the weather, Type 1 Safety Officer Mike Gillespie is making sure the firefighters have escape routes and are aware of the particular dangers in the area they are assigned to.

“Our overall concern is the firefighters’ safety,” Gillespie said. “We identify the risks and hazards and how to mitigate them at the beginning of each day and throughout the day. There’s always a level of risk. We just try to get it down to something that we can accept.”

Oak Creek Canyon presents some extreme risks, he said. The walls of the canyon are steep and rocky. The entire area is very dry and firefighters have had to work with some high wind conditions.

“We’re always very cautious. We won’t put a person in a position where there’s no clear route of escape to a safety zone,” Gillespie said.

A safety zone is an area where firefighters can shelter in case something goes wrong.

An additional level of safety for the firefighter is the two radio repeater stations that have been set up around the fire.

Incident Command Trainee John Pierson said the two repeaters make sure there is good radio contact between hotshot crews and the main camp.

The repeaters come in handy during the dark hours of the night, when fighting a wildfire is the trickiest, he said.

“Not only is it dark and hard to see, but we have to figure out how to transport firefighters to where we need them and there’re lots of elk out there,” Pierson said. “Our number one concern is getting them there safely.”

Which hot shot crews are assigned to which part of the fire is determined during briefings at the beginning and end of each shift, Pierson said.

Each duty station and which crews are assigned to them are written on dry erase boards that are taped to the walls of the briefing room in one of the buildings at Fort Tuthill. This way, everyone knows who is doing what.

Each shift lasts approximately 12 hours, Pierson said. They overlap by a few hours in order to give the crews time to communicate what’s happening with the fire.

While the firefighters are busy battling the blaze, Megan Macht, the time unit leader in the finance office, is making sure they get paid.

“I keep track of all of the time sheets,” she said.

Each firefighter can work up to 16 hours before having to take at least eight hours off, Macht said. They can work a maximum of 14 days.

The number of days can be extended to 21 days if the firefighter gets permission and the fire conditions warrant it, she said.

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