Portable 'City' Caters To Firefighters

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It took 662 people working shifts of up to 16 hours a day for 10 days to bring the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires under control.

While in the Rim country, crews stayed in a miniature city completely assembled and operational in a matter of hours at the Houston Mesa Horse Camp and Houston Mesa Campground just off the Beeline.

"Essentially what we do is set up a city complete with law enforcement, sanitation, food, shelter you name it," said Jack Babb, Payson Fire Marshal who also doubled as an information officer during the fire.

In addition to Larry Humphrey's Type I Incident Management Team, five Type I hotshot crews, nine Type II crews, and various support personnel lived and worked together in close proximity.

"It's a tough job that requires a pretty intense commitment," Babb said. "A lot of these guys have to be able to be released from their normal jobs, many of which are with state or federal agencies."

It's a commitment that includes being away from families and loved ones for extended periods of time. Besides the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires, Humphrey's team has so far this summer fought fires in California and New Mexico, as well as the Bullock Fire near Tucson and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

Having at least some of the comforts of home available to them made a difficult assignment more tolerable. While clusters of tents set up throughout the campgrounds served as sleeping quarters, this city had a "downtown" area made up of tents, trailers, portable office buildings and an occasional camper that provided all the services necessary for a group of this size.

Food service and supplies were the two largest operations.

The food service area, which included a portable kitchen, a full-service salad bar and beverage tent, and two dining tents, was operated by North Slope Catering, a company out of Fairbanks, Alaska. It took three days for North Slope to drive non-stop to Payson, but once here, they were up and running in two-and-a-half hours.

Their crew served three hot meals a day, including a full breakfast buffet with eggs, bacon and hash browns.

"We try to stay away from burgers and hot dogs," Joe Upton, who owns the company with his father, said. "Last night, we had New York steaks and baked potatoes, and tonight we're having pork loin with stuffing."

At the nearby supply area were stacks of yellow shirts, picks and shovels, gloves, backpacks, headlamps and other paraphernalia used to fight fires. And there were rows and rows of pallets stacked with bottled water and Gatorade.

Another major operation was ground support, responsible for transportation of supplies, food and people between the camps and the fire.

"We're the wheels of the fire," Ted McRae, supervisor of the operation, said.

There also was a meteorologist assigned to the fire who took weather measurements from the line and from remote computerized stations and produced daily forecasts specific to the fire.

A communications trailer supplied and maintained the radios that allowed firefighting personnel to communicate with one another. Each area of the fire has its own frequency, with a command frequency used to coordinate the entire operation.

At a portable print shop, daily "incident action plans" the guidebooks that keep everybody aware of what everybody else is doing were produced, as well as all the camp signage, safety messages and a variety of miscellaneous forms and documents.

Other functions and services located "downtown" included offices to handle information, security, time recording and demobilization functions.

Now that the two fires are under control, the Type I team has disbanded and the city has shrunk in size.

The Houston Mesa Campground is again open to the public, but a Type 3 Incident Management Team, headed by Rob Beery, still occupies the horse camp.

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