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It’s been not one but two fires camps since my last post. Geez, a lot happened in only five weeks!

In September, I worked fire support for the Salmon-August Complex, a series of forest fires with camp based in beautiful little Etna, California surrounded by the Marble Mountain Wilderness area which was on fire in multiple locations.

I had a few days at home, then flew back east to spend a week with my dad to celebrate his 75th birthday. Thanks to hurricane Nate dropping lots of rain and fog in the mountains, our father-daughter road trip in the Blue Ridge Parkway was cut a day short.

No sooner had I arrived home from the airport and set my bags down well after midnight, I received a text from my fire support boss asking if I could be on a plane to California in a few hours to help out at the Tubbs Fire which encompassed the Napa and Sonoma area in which dozens of homes burned, including many human and animal lives lost.

two fire engines tipped up at Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, California
Fire engines get some TLC after long drives from their home station to the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, California.

 

In only a few sleepless hours:

  • I unpacked from our father-daughter vacation,
  • repacked to work laundry at my second fire camp,
  • apologized profusely to my cat Sophie Fiona for leaving again so soon,
  • gave thanks to my dear friend and the world’s best pet sitter Julie for taking care of Sophie for the third time in four weeks,
  • and returned to the airport.

Why and how did I begin working fire support? If you missed the first fire camp blog, check it out here.

 

Teresa Sigmon works laundry fire support
I’m doing laundry on a chilly morning. Salmon-August Complex in Etna, California.

 

In short, doing laundry at fire camp was an awesome experience!

I’m still trying to put it all into words.

It’s a bizarre combination of having everything you need to survive – or even thrive: food, shelter, companionship, cooperation, income, and a well-defined higher purpose.

However, it all happens in less than perfect conditions: dirty, dusty, smoky, hot days, cold nights sleeping in less than ideal living conditions (i.e. a tent with trucks driving close by).

There is constant noise from generators, water trucks and fire engines and almost no privacy since even washing your face and brushing your teeth is at a public hand-wash station.

Yet I absolutely loved working fire support.

The Salmon-August Complex I worked in September was very rural: fire camp was in what used to be a cow pasture and the tiny town of Etna was two miles away. We had beautiful views of mountains and trees and a camp mascot of two giant bulls. Camp housed about 1200 fire crew and support staff.

One of the security officers and I tracked a rancher’s dog through camp. I fed the giant bulls in the neighboring field. Walked by the creek. Was courted by a handsome Park Ranger. Learned to play chess. And traded stories with dozens of fascinating people from across the U.S.

I even chased fire fighters’ tents that were dislodged from their stakes during a wind storm. (Mind you, chasing tumbleweed tents is damn hard work; like trying to catch a full blown parachute!)

As a result of 8 successful tent saves, Joe, who worked the shower unit, gave me an honorary Native American name of “Runs With Tents” like from the movie “Dances With Wolves”

 

 

Teresa Sigmon, Rhonda Shotts at fire camp at Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County, California
Rhonda Shotts and I finish setting up the laundry unit on our first morning at fire camp at Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County, California.
Notice the crazy plume of smoke in the sky behind us?

 

The Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, California was very different! Urban is an understatement. As you can see in the photos from my Facebook album, we’re in the middle of a neighborhood, not a forest. Camp also grew to almost 5,000 fire crew and support. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds was spacious enough not only for fire camp, but it also housed human evacuees and about 100 rescued or evacuated horses.

 


fire support, water, ice, water truck
Fire support and water truck at the Salmon-August Complex in Etna, California.

 

 

I imagine every fire camp is like a tiny, portable town offering a medic, medical supplies, showers, hand-wash stations, portable toilets and a mess tent serving hot breakfast and dinner, brown bag lunch. Water, Gatorade and ice are available in unlimited quantities.

There is also a supply office where fire crew can get tents, stakes, tarps or other camp-life necessities.

California fires also offer laundry services, which is where I worked.

(Apparently, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and many other states do not offer laundry services to their fire crew. Seems like a bad idea given that these guys often walk or crawl through poison oak while on the fire line.)

Working laundry was an awesome job because almost everyone was happy to see a smiling face and have clean clothes. My laundry colleagues and boss were fabulous and I met so many wonderful people.

The Tubbs Fire in Sonoma was such a large camp that there were two each of laundry and showers units for the fire crew. There were also two additional units dedicated to the inmates who worked as fire fighters or as kitchen crew. At Tubbs, laundry ran 24 hours instead of the 16 hours we did at the Salmon-August Complex.

 

brown bag lunch at Tubbs Fire, fire support
Contents of a standard brown bag lunch at Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, California. There is usually a vegetarian option as well.

 

There is an overabundance of food to keep the fire crew well nourished.

Meals at the Etna fire camp were rather horrible military-style, highly over-processed with little nutritional value (or flavor. Thank goodness for hot sauce!)

However, the meals at the CalFire were pretty tasty with fresh salads and fruits and well-prepared proteins. Thanks to the inmates at the CalFire in Sonoma for making my dining experience much better than the catering at my first fire camp!

 

 

The experience was so fantastic, I could probably keep writing for three more days. But I'll spare you.

If you want to see more fire camp pics or videos, check out my Facebook page - and friend me while you're there!

If you're not on Facebook, click here; for pics of the Salmon-August Complex in Etna, California. Click here for pics and videos of the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, California. I made the photo albums public so you should be able to see them albums without having a Facebook account.

Thanks for listening about my experiences. Take care. I'll soon post another blog about ballroom, Country or skate dresses 🙂

Teresa

 

Posted on November 1, 2017.

Update: June 9, 2018. According to this NPR report, fire fighters believe the Napa County, California fires were begun when trees or tree limbs fell into power lines causing them to break and send sparks into the woods.


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