Tents dot the campus at unified command headquarters as firefighters try to get some rest between bouts with the Whittier Fire.
Inside Fire City, Population: 1,612
Dos Pueblos High Transforms into Whittier Fire Base Camp
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Usually a ghost town during the sleepy summer vacation, Dos Pueblos High School is now a bustling city, a temporary home to the 1,612 firefighters, U.S. Forest Service managers, and supporting personnel working to extinguish the Whittier Fire. The eight-day-old fire, which is 38 percent contained, has consumed 17,364 acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Goleta, joining 12 other large fires burning in California at press time.
Last Thursday evening, The Santa Barbara Independent toured the base camp as firefighters prepared for the 12-hour night shift ahead of them. Under a mostly clear sky, men and women milled around the high school’s parking lot, now called Main Street. “It’s got all the logistical parts you would need in a city,” explained Fire Information Officer Mike Theune, pointing to a radio information-tech trailer and a tool shop, where firefighters can have their saws repaired and sharpened at the end of a shift.
Main Street at Whittier Fire HQ
Next door to the shower facilities and a long line of porta-potties, a female firefighter picked up a bag of clean clothes from a trailer packed with washers and driers. Like many of the companies contracted to provide base-camp services, the mobile laundromat service kicks into gear during fire season. “We’re capable of washing 1,500 pounds per day,” boasted an employee. Last week he was washing the sweat and soot out of fire gear at Big Bear before heading west to Santa Barbara.
Hygiene is paramount, explained Theume’s colleague Mary Sullivan, as we walked past a group of California Conservation Corps members washing their hands before dinner. A sign that hung above them stated “No Nomex Shirts in Dining Hall,” referring to the iconic yellow fabric that protects firefighters from heat and flames in the field. The rule is no formality but rather a safety measure against the spread of poison oak, which is endemic to Los Padres National Forest. At best, poison oak is an irritating nuisance; at worst it is a very serious medical issue that can require steroid treatments, according to Jim Harris, deputy fire chief for Los Padres National Forest.
Laundry Day is every day at Whittier Fire.
Under a large tent, firefighters chowed down on penne pasta with Italian sausage, lentils, and a side of garlic bread, all served from a giant food truck. While living out of base camp for weeks at a time, meals become sacred, explained Theume — shared moments of “normalcy and routine” for firefighters who often work 14 days at a time. Both Theume and Sullivan, who’ve been flown in from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Plumas National Forest in Northern California, often celebrate their summer birthdays at command centers.