Wildland crews describe what life is like at 'firefighter city' base

The base camp is set up by Cal Fire to assist local fire agencies and covers nearly every quality-of-life detail

By Brianna Calix
Merced Sun-Star

MERCED, Calif. — Firefighter Dan Kimes spent his 27th wedding anniversary at the Merced County Fairgrounds catching up on paperwork for the Detwiler Fire that's raging in Mariposa County, far from his wife in Southern California.

The firefighter for the city of Vernon in Los Angeles County arrived about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday and worked with his 20 other crew mates to protect the mountain homes threatened by the Detwiler Fire burning in Mariposa County.

"We're busy," Kimes said. "Today's our off day, and we're doing paperwork."

Little by little, the CalFire incident command post at the fairgrounds has become more elaborate as more resources arrive since the main operations center moved to Merced on Tuesday. The base camp is set up by the CalFire incident command team to assist local fire agencies and covers nearly every quality-of-life detail, said CalFire Capt. John Clingingsmith, a public information officer from Riverside.

"We've built a mobile city overnight so we don't greatly impact the local area and drain resources still needed for daily operations," he said.

The camp is a tangled maze of trailers, tents, vehicles and port-a-potties and includes a mobile kitchen, communication center, medical center, automotive repair site, safety center and more than a dozen sleeping trailers. CalFire contracts with vendors for catering services, communication services and even office supplies like copiers and printers.

The camp is bustling in the morning, when CalFire officials hold the morning briefing, give assignments and crews switch shifts.

Thursday's breakfast was chicken fried steak, prepared by jail inmates.

Firefighters will load up in the morning with ice, water, Gatorade and lunches before heading out for their new 24-hour shift. Returning firefighters will replace their gear, get food and head to the sleeping trailers. Some firefighters have pitched tents in the grass.

"You're dead tired and you want to get a decent night's sleep. So you come back as fast as you can to get a spot in (the trailers)," Kimes said.

Nancy Koerperich, Merced County's Fire Chief for CalFire, said, during the summer, many local hotels are booked up, and it's difficult to get rooms for firefighters.

"Years ago, we got a sleeping bag and slept in the dirt," she said while giving a tour of the camp to Merced and Mariposa leaders. "It was brutal. I once slept under a fire engine because it was the only shade."

Over the years, more has been done to provide firefighters a comfortable night's sleep, which has proven to reduce the number of injuries and increase productivity, Koerperich said.

By Thursday afternoon, fewer people were at the camp. Some off-duty firefighters lounged in the shade, munching on bagged lunches and using the Internet on their cellphones. Others could be seen blocks away from the fairgrounds, headed to fast-food restaurants.

Tom Painton, a battalion chief from Vernon, said he's been on the road for more than two weeks. This second major fire he's worked this year, he said.

"It goes on every summer," he said. "With the recent drought, fire season came early this year. This is just the first of many incidents to come this summer."

Last year, Roberto Rojas, a Compton city firefighter, spent 36 days working with a firefighting air unit.

The firefighters agreed it's easier to be away from home as the children get older. "If you have babies at home, it's tough," Rojas said.

After 27 years, Kimes said communication has been the key to his marriage. "I have a wife that's understanding," he said. "The spouse has to be good at emergencies too. Sometimes we're up there, and we don't get reception."

Outside the fairgrounds entrance on 11th Street, several canopies were set up and people sold custom Detwiler fire t-shirts. Corrine White, who owns White Hot Tees with her husband out of Diamond Springs, said they often donate the shirts to volunteer firefighters and the proceeds from sales to relief efforts for victims.

The Detwiler fire t-shirts depicted a skeleton wearing a tophat peering into a crystal ball that showed firefighters battling giant flames.

"The firefighters come from all over and put their lives on the line," White said. "They want to have a souvenir. It's a memento for them. Usually, they buy shirts for themselves but also for the wives and kids -- their families. The chiefs will call us when there's a fire and say 'Are you guys going to be there?'"

Clingingsmith said the base will stay at the fairgrounds as long as it's available and necessary, which could be for many weeks to come.

"Even though we're from all over California," he said, "we are your local fire department right now until this incident is mitigated."

Copyright 2017 Merced Sun-Star

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