An inside look at the fire camp set up at the Gila County Fairgrounds where firefighters stayed while they fought the Pinal Fire near Globe in May and June 2017. Tom Tingle/

GLOBE — A wildfire can strike anywhere. Firefighters must be ready to do the same. During fire season, small cities emerge where firefighters eat, shower and rest before their next shift, cities that are built and torn down in a day or two.

“We’re all here for a common goal. That kind of brings you together. … It’s a brotherhood, if you will,” said Rocky Beery, a division group supervisor trainee with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We all come together at the fire camps,” Beery said

Beery, a 16-year firefighting veteran, was winding up a stint at the Pinal Fire, a lightning-caused blaze burning south of Globe. About 640 firefighters had gathered at the Gila County Fairgrounds at one point to keep tabs on the fire, which burned more than 7,000 acres before firefighters left containment to local crews.

The command post settled into a few offices, but most workers set up tables in a large, open room with electrical cords taped to the floor. Men and women looked at computers to monitor weather and plan firefighting strategy. Others worked in finance. There were computer specialists, a map-making team, a human-resources person.

The human-resources specialist is there to iron out differences that may arise on the 20-person crews. Disagreements that might be annoying in a office environment can have bigger consequences on a fire line.

“When you’re not getting along, you’re not watching each other’s back,” said Ana Parada, the human-resources specialist at the Pinal Fire. Sometimes, when people see a job to do, “they kind of butt heads. They’re probably both right. … It’s just a different approach.”

Parada hangs a map on the wall and sticks pins on it to show all the places that firefighters come from.

“We had them all the way to the East Coast,” she said. “From shore to shore.”

‘It’s like a mini Walmart’

A lot of camps are bigger than the Pinal Fire camp, supporting 1,000 firefighters or more, up to 5,000 in some cases.

Outside, large trucks served as mobile kitchens and showers. Tents served as dining rooms or supply outlets where firefighters could find gloves, batteries, radios, shirts, pants and other items. A drink station offered iced tea (decaf and regular), water and lemonade. The hum of engines and generators was everywhere. A garbage truck roared by; a forklift hauled pallets of water off a truck.

“It is a small city,” said Sandra Lopez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Because this camp was in the process of breaking down, there were stacks of fire hose, already rolled up. Throughout the yard, there were tarps and tents, a box of nozzles, tents, earplugs, zip ties, stir sticks for fuel, backpacks, toilet paper, drip torches, fuel, foam fire retardant, and fencing. There were sleeping pads and sleeping bags on a pallet.

“It’s like a mini Walmart,” Lopez said.

There was even an electric hose roller.

“Sometimes there are hundreds of miles of hose … that they have to roll back up,” Lopez said.

Modern fire camps also have phone service. When cell service is spotty, crews will set up a phone bank, a table full of land lines. Cell companies can also erect temporary towers.

Fire camps often use existing facilities, like a school or, in the case of the Pinal Fire and the Sawmill Fire north of Sonoita in April, the county fairgrounds. Others are built in more remote areas.

Either way, the camps go up quickly. Sometimes, firefighters sleep in tents. Sometimes, in more remote areas, they build yurts. 

“You’ll see power cords taped in the middle of the forest,” Lopez said.


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