Over the last two months I have had the privilege of helping out at the fires on the West Coast. The first camp I worked at first was in Orleans, California. I got the job through a friend from my previous travels and began work for a mobile kitchen company. I was picked up from the Medford airport in Oregon and was shocked at the incredible amount of smoke in the air while driving to camp.
The smoke was very heavy and firefighters lined the road. Large logs laying just off the pavement still smoldered and dark patches of completely burned areas kept popping up as we drove along. A pilot car was leading the group of us safely through the area. Arriving to the camp I was put to work right away.
Starting in the freight department, work was moving, cleaning, and doing whatever else needed to be done. I had a tent to sleep in and woke up to be ready to work at 8:30. There were 600 to 800 firefighters at this camp who would go out for the day after grabbing breakfast. The kitchen served food at 5 and stayed open till 9:30 for breakfast and then roughly the same hours for dinner. The mobile kitchen unit company provided the lunches for the firefighters as well. I helped make 600 sandwiches in the refrigerated semi trailer that was used for food prep. We had other boxes of snacks, condiments, instant coffee and more that was put into the sack lunches. At night the workers who weren’t cooking and serving dinner worked on assembling the 800 sack lunches. We would form an assembly line with one person opening the bags and dropping in the ziplock bag, while the next would add the fruit and carrots, and so on. When I first arrived it was very long days from 8 to 11 at night. Usually there were a couple hour breaks in the mid afternoon.
Freight crew was also responsible for unloading the large semi trailers full of fresh produce every couple of days and pulling all the foods needed for making breakfast and dinner and putting back the extra from the kitchen that wasn’t used.
Here they are unloading the huge deliveries into either the freezer semi trailer, refrigerator trailer, or the other food prep trailer.
Here is a picture of where we would assemble the sack lunches and store all the dry goods.
With the long firefighter hours and difficult work the lunches were pretty hefty!
After a few days my boss found out I had previous experience in the kitchen and switched me to working in there. Some of the other cooks were leaving. The pay was about 11.25/hr for starting in the kitchen and there was a hazard pay from working near the fire with the smoke and danger of an extra 4.75 an hour if I remember right. Kitchen hours started at 3:30 A.M. to 10:30A.M. (11 and 11:30 sometimes too with other cleaning that needed to be done.) Dinner shift was about the same of 3:30P.M. to 10 or 11. It was a LOT of work but very rewarding. With the fires there is no weekends or holidays. I was putting in close to 100 hours a week.
At dinner and breakfast time we had an assembly line forming the plate with all the food and passing it out the window to the long line of firefighters. A catwalk had been built outside the windows. Going down the steps they had another tent full of a salad bar, desserts, chocolate milk, coffee, juices, etc.
It was generally quite smoky in the mornings, but the area was really beautiful when the smoke cleared.
While it was very long hours and tough work it was fun. Some times were hectic from having to make more food last minute when more people showed up than were ordered. It was a lot of cooking throughout the whole work shift as much of the food was made pan by pan as we aimed to keep it the freshest. I don’t know if it was always being on my feet, and using my hands for grilling hundreds and hundreds of pieces of pork on the grill, or always wiping down and scrubbing hard on the dishes, but my hands would actually get quite numb… and stay numb.
I got concerned about this for a little bit and asked my buddy “JJ” working with me in the kitchen if his feet or hands had lost any feeling. After he said yes, we laughed about it together and kept up the hard work, mentioning how difficult this job in the kitchen really is.
We made fresh eggs every two days for everyone for breakfast and when we ran out of fresh eggs and the people in line had to wait just a minute for some more eggs we would shout out “FRESH EGGS, COMING UP,”! Normally two people would work the buffet line setting up the plates with the first three dishes before passing it to the other person to finish adding the other three options. The line got really full and we would be passing out nicely organized plates with tri-tip , veggies, a quinoa dish, bread, and more. Some people would get picky in line and when people looking through the windows would say “no veggies” we would sometimes joke with them and get a smile by yelling out “EXTRA VEGGIES!” (with the windows and noise of the kitchen vent fans it was fairly difficult to hear the special requests.
We were cracking over 1000 eggs on the grills. One person normally was on egg duty and the other grill was used for something like pancakes, unless a huge rush came and both flat top grills had to be switched to egg duty.
One of the other cooks I was working under was burned out and decided to head home. My boss hired this other cook to come in and he lasted less than a half hour. You have to really fill the flat top and use all the “grill estate” or you won’t be able to keep up with the rush or finish your other breakfast dishes in time. It is a very demanding job, and this new guy was not nearly up to speed.
I mostly slept and worked for my whole month working here. The whole fire camp was exciting with all the other facilities they offered to the firefighters. Other converted semi trailers were showers and laundry facilities. Other sink trailers were around the camp along with many other important mobile homes/trailers for medical support and the big wigs making the big decisions managing the firefighters and resources. There were 4 Mobile sleeping semi trailers that were a life saver.
Rows of bunks 4 high with little curtains and dim lighting provided the firefighters and I a nice cool place to sleep during the hottest times in the day. Trying to sleep in a tent with the midday sun was unbearable. I was so thankful for these trailers and the very precious time off work when I was able to sleep in them.
Near the very end of the month (September) it had cooled down a lot. When it wasn’t too hot in the afternoon I would also take naps in my hammock.
We did have some ash rain early on in the month just covering absolutely everything and sometimes slightly irritating your throat.
Firefighting teams came from all over to help with the Orleans fire. We even had Samoans who performed one of their traditional dances on their last day.
And here’s a few bonus pictures of camp showing my friend enjoying some left over delicious pork and the beautiful campground. It was a blackberry patch on someones farmland that was whacked down for us to set up camp. I am sure the land owner was paid very handsomely. I was told the mobile sleeper units were costing the government around 2800 dollars for one of the trailers for 1 day! I looked into working for them and would have made 220 dollars to start on much more normal hours checking people in and cleaning the bunks. I ended up working into a kitchen manager position and was so excited to be making 1800 a week before taxes!
*Firecamp part 2*
I stayed in California with a friend and ended up getting quickly hired on for the next fire with our base being out of the Sonoma county fairgrounds.
This time I was on the Porta-Potty crew and it was both exciting and gross. Doing something I have never done before is always kinda fun to me with the aspect of learning something new and getting into a new routine you have never done before. Even with cleaning Porta-Potties there was a lot for me to learn!
The company already had about 200 on the fairgrounds set up and ended up having 100 more ordered. With the new ones I was pumped for the amazing opportunity of using a BRAND NEW never before used Porta-John.
We woke up in the morning to go to breakfast at around 7 to grab some breakfast as a team and then start on the morning service of cleaning all of them.
With so many toilets we had a couple trucks working on servicing them.
They were serviced twice a day and we normally would pump out the waste from our trucks to one of the bigger ones so we could start empty on waste and would fill our water tanks from a fire-hose.
I already LOVED this much more relaxed schedule (to me) from getting up super super early.
Breakfast seemed leisurely with there being no immediate concern to have the toilets done as fast as possible in the morning. My old kitchen job was filled with constantly checking the time to make sure we were on schedule with having everything ready by 5 A.M. and 5 P.M. It was great with this job cleaning toilets to be able to relax a bit and not have to be so time conscious.
Having just worked in the kitchen I was extremely curious how this camp ran theirs and the quality of the food they served. Instead of the Forest Service in Orleans this Sonoma Fire was being taken care of by “CalFire.” The Calfire kitchen was run by inmates.
I was super impressed; so much food options in cereal oatmeal, pop tarts, good fruit, yogurt, delicious muffins, and more. These pictures above are even before getting to the trailer that cooked and handed out the hot food.
I really found it all quite tasty and very well done. They had other tables set out with all kinds of juices, milks, teas and coffee.
Besides all the great food this job paid well too! There were two positions of a wiper and the other driver/pumper. The driver ($275/day) was primarily responsible for knowing where to go on the fairground and using the hose to suck out the porta-jons. And the wiper ($200/day) would be spraying, wiping, and changing toilet papers. I started as wiper with Taylor going through behind him with a very powerful chemical we called J-spray. It smelled like cinnamon and left the area smelling wonderful.
AFter sucking all the waste out we would typically put 5 gallons of water into the holding tank and splash a very blue detergent that also smelled great and looked even better. This detergent was great at covering any unpleasant sights if you were to look into the bowl.
A water hose was attached to the truck and I would go through spraying out each of the units and then wipe down each of them; from the seat and seat area with one rag, to the floor with another. We had some heavy gloves we wore to protect us.
When lunchtime rolled around I couldn’t wait to see what the Calfire lunch looked like and almost jumped for excitement at the incredible amount of goodies.
These packs even included GUM! It is hard to see all that was included in the picture. There is even a summer sausage! : )
After lunch we moved around some porta potties and other new ones to better spots. Here are a few pictures of the camp.
Each of the porta potties banks had sinks with them that we would check to make sure had soap, paper towels, fresh water, and that the grey water had been sucked out.
We grabbed some delicious dinner quick.
Night time rolled around and we each grabbed our headlights to be able to see what we were cleaning during our second and last service of the day!
While working as a wiper for Taylor, I got to go on one of the outside loops servicing the other toilets that were placed at the helicopter bases, fire stations, and other areas.
This is when I really got to see all the burned down homes, fire-station and incredible damage this fire had caused. We even drove by this completely leveled neighborhood with News Crews standing in the middle of it capturing their own breathtaking footage.
This fire had already killed around 20 people and the military were even involved.
Here is a shot from the helicopter base.
When we didn’t have any other toilets to move in the middle of the day we would normally have a couple hours off to relax back at our camp. We stayed in an RV park and had a few tents set up next to our bosses camper. We could stay in the camper if there was room too, but the people with seniority got first pick of course.
My friend Tiana from Puerto Rico was the one that got me this job and with the long 10 hour days was exhausted. Poor tired Tiana. 🙂
With the way things rolled we had a few more trucks come down and I got the opportunity to be a driver! Here is the real A-Team with “my” truck! Crushing it!
Unlike wiping I actually had to look in all the toilets now to make sure I got what I needed to get and that there wasn’t something that was going to clog the line. I found a cellphone, shirts, underwear, apple’s and all kinds of trash in the waste.
It was bewildering how some people could miss the toilet and occasionally get poop everywhere! I spared you all by not taking these disgusting pictures. My co-worker Tiana saw one so bad that someone had roped off the Porta-potty with caution tape, and she came very close to quitting.
At one time they had over 5,000 firefighters working this fire and it was very big in the news. We had local businesses that came to the fairgrounds offering their services for free to help out as well. Some professionals came and set up a spot for giving out massages. Starbucks also represented in coming and handing out their coffee. Peets coffee was there with one of their mobile trucks handing out their cold brews, hot chocolate, and regular coffee. One family even cooked a bunch of pasta and set up a buffet for anyone who wanted it. The side fences around the campground were filled with signs “Thank you first responders!” and others showing the appreciation for all the firemen and support team work in saving houses, lives, and in stopping the fire.
Policemen worked at the gates waving through vehicles through the fairground if they had the right pass displayed on their windshield and military personal, with a rifle slung over their back, stood checking at the other gate.
The RV park housed some of the people that lost their homes and the American Red Cross brought food and other basic care items for those who were not allowed to return to the evacuated areas.
With all this publicity this fire received, B&B portable toilets was even was in a magazine!
That is about it for now.
Here’s a few more pictures I like from camp. Hope you enjoy.
Really some great lunches and dinners!
P.S. As my curiosity leads I did find out that the mobile toilet companies really make money from the servicing. It is a dollar a day per unit for being on the property and around 30 something dollars per service per Porta-john. If you do the numbers with around 300 toilets it ends up being a ton of money raked in a day. Just one unit can be from 750 to 1,000 dollars new though. It is also very expensive dumping the human waste at treatment plants.
For the kitchen company I worked for I found out we made 20 dollars a plate, and about 26 dollars for the lunches. The other cost for the fresh food way out in the boonies and 700 dollars a day for just propane cost can really add up. STILL, this business side of things was fascinating to me. I think the government is really paying very well for these mobile services in emergency situations.
P.S.S. As I write this I am sitting in the Toyko airport on the way to Jakarta, Indonesia! Until the next time then?