As Calif. fires continue, firefighters – and their camps – jump into motion

Fire officials fuel a system of camps and supply bases to provide for the on-the-job needs of thousands of firefighters deployed around California.

David Royal/The Monterey County Herald/AP
Rancho Adobe Fire Captan James Devrloo keeps an eye on a fire line as a wildfire burns in Carmel Valley, Calif. on July 27.

California's wildfires continued to spread Thursday, with firefighters scrambling to contain multiple fires threatening thousands of properties around the state. Behind the scenes, however, fire officials faced a different challenge: caring for thousands of firefighters needing food, showers, and rest. 

Along the central coast, 3,500 firefighters have been able to contain around 10 percent of the Soberanes Fire, which is threatening 2,000 properties between Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea, where it began last Friday. Flames have destroyed 34 homes and 10 outbuildings over about 24,000 acres. One bulldozer operator called in to help the fire effort has been killed, the Los Angeles Times reported

To the south, another 3,000 are attempting to tame the Sand Fire in the Santa Clarita Valley, near Los Angeles. Containment lines are now in place around 40 percent of the nearly 40,000 acre fire, an official told Reuters. 

Authorities have overseen the establishment of supply bases, having learned from extensive previous experience how to get the camps up and running quickly to care for firefighters between their 16-hour shifts. The camps themselves are "one of the extraordinary achievements" of US firefighting, Keith Gilless, the dean of the college of natural resources at University of California, Berkeley, told the Associated Press. 

In Santa Clarita, for example, 20,000 residents are now gone, thanks to an evacuation order. But it's far from empty. Golden Valley High has become the temporary home for 3,000 firefighters and the organizational staff operating the camp. 

"You've got very defined roles for people, for communications, for logistics," Dr. Gilless, who also heads California's Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the AP. "When an incident occurs in one area, it sets in motion a chain of responses" involving cooperation from local, regional, and federal authorities. 

Overseeing the camp is Jack Van Lear, a 74-year-old retired US Forest Service civil engineer who now occasionally takes the helm as logistics chief of the state's incident command system. When the fire broke out, he quickly called for deliveries of trailers used as offices and barracks, and supplies from sleeping bags to forklifts. 

At 3 a.m. Saturday, he was happy to see the mobile kitchen dishing out eggs and bacon, as other workers prepared lunches to go. 

"When we keep our firefighters fed, we keep them happy," Mr. Van Lear told the AP.

Zachary Resnick, a veteran firefighter with the Forest Service's Big Bear Hot Shots team, said that firefighters appreciate the camps during their intense weeks on the job. 

"You have laundry, you have your shower, you have your sleep trailer. Everything working together makes a livable experience," Mr. Resnick told the AP.

On Tuesday, acting California Governor Tom Torlakson, who is standing in for Jerry Brown as he attends the Democratic National Convention, declared a state of emergency in the counties where the fires are located. 

"Firefighting is an inherently dangerous job with great risk involved," Cal Fire incident commander Todd Derum said, according to the LA Times. "Please keep your heartfelt thoughts and prayers with the family of our fallen cooperator and the firefighting community."

This report contains information from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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