Fire gives birth to Cook County's second-largest cityby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The second-largest city in Cook County wasn't there two weeks ago -- it's the fire camp up on the Gunflint Trail, and it's been home for about 1,000 people working the Ham Lake fire. The camp is part of a highly-organized response to the fire that's been burning there since May 5. Fire camp has its own residential neighborhoods, showers, and food service.
Seagull guard station, Cook County, Minn. — The heart of the fire camp is the Incident Command Center, a small village based at the Sea Gull guard station on the upper Gunflint Trail. Here, the key people planning the firefight live and work out of a dozen camper-trailers.
One trailer from Salt Lake City does nothing but make maps and copies. It pumps out 500 plans a day. Weather central is two trailers over. That's where Tom Reid is huddled over a map, trying to outsmart the winds that pushed this fire over 75,000 acres.
"I'd say it's persistent," Reid says. "Normally a fire will push in one direction. It makes it a little easier to fight. But this fire tends to ... you get switching winds every couple of days as the fronts go through. You know, it just kind of goes around in a circle."
Lately, Tom's been able to predict good news, like the damp weather that's helped hold the fire in check since Sunday.
Pass a couple more trailers and you come to the guard station's main building, almost hidden from view by mountains of cardboard boxes. This is the supply dump. The station's garage is the camp store. There are stacks of yellow and green clothing, a wall of axes, and counters covered with smaller stuff.
"This is kind of like Wal-Mart that's mobile: a Wal-Mart on steroids," says fire information officer Dick Birger as he digs through the cartons. "We got calculators, pencils... how many push-pins are needed to accurately map 55,000 acres?"
A hilltop across from the headquarters is a makeshift landing field for helicopters.
Just a short hop up the Gunflint Trail is the firefighters' base camp, home to the people on the front lines. It's got stainless steel, outdoor, wash-up counters; showers based in semi-trailers, and a field full of four-man tents. This is where firefighters catch what sleep they can.
"Usually, it's pretty standard, like now, I can squeeze out six hours," says Madonna Lengerich. "Sometimes, though, a lot of times, it's only four or five. And that's night after night after night."
It doesn't help that sunrise comes before 5:30 in the morning.
"I noticed that sun comes up early around here," she says. "Now I turn my sleeping bag upside down so the mummy part of it goes over my face. So I didn't even know the lightning was happening until I had to get up last night and I pushed my sleeping bag cover back, and I go 'Oh my God, look at the lightning show out here.'"
The camp hums with electric generators by day and snoring by night.
Fire camp can be a good life if you like to eat. Lengerich says sack lunches are packed with calories to energize the hard-working firefighters, starting with two sandwiches apiece.
"So you got meat and more meat. Ah the cookie, I'm going to raid this one, I tell you what. And they always have juice, and raisins. Oh, you get barbeque sauce, and some mayonnaise. This is just lunch," Lengerich says.
Over in the food tent, Anita Hyde is preparing supper.
"These guys eat quite well," she says.
Hyde got the call in Lakeview, Oregon last Wednesday. Her team was on the road a few hours later. On Sunday night they served 835 people.
"It was 675 pounds of beef. We went through 120 pounds of vegetables. We went through 1,800 dinner rolls. I've ordered, two, four, six, eight ... 22,000 half pints of milk since I've been here. Tonight we're doing pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. And we're even going to attempt some walleye," according to Hyde.
Fire camp is organized from the semi-trucks to the spoons. As fast as the place assembled, it will eventually disappear. Once this fire is contained, much of the crew will move on to a well-needed rest, or the next fire, leaving a couple of hundred behind to mop up.
- All Things Considered, 05/16/2007, 5:24 p.m.