If you go
What: Sisters resident Pete Shepard is planning a public meeting to organize a potluck or similar event to thank firefighters working on the Milli Fire and their families.
When: Friday, Sept. 1, at 5:30 p.m.
Where: The meeting room in Ray’s Food Place, 635 N. Arrowleaf Trail, Sisters
SISTERS — As the pink sun set on Thursday evening, a shift of firefighters began to trickle into the Sisters Rodeo Grounds in red trucks after a 12-hour stretch of digging lines, setting controlled burns and conducting other efforts to keep the Milli Fire away from populated parts of Central Oregon.
The firefighters, visibly tired, sweaty and looking for a shower, stuffed gear and outerwear into duffel bags after getting off the trucks before, finally, they could grab some dinner.
As the night shift prepared to head out, the returning firefighters settled in to a hastily established small city of tents and portable facilities, their temporary home. The fire camp, in the footprint of the rodeo grounds around 10 miles from the edge of the fire, is designed to keep nearly 700 firefighters and staffers safe, healthy and relatively well-rested, a task that requires hours of work, truckloads of supplies and, of course, several thousand barbecued chicken wings.
“It’s quite a team effort, and it’s all kind of centered around the base camp here,” said Craig Daugherty, fire chief for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, one of the incident management teams called in for the large fire.
On Aug. 11, a lightning strike about 9 miles west of Sisters sparked the Milli Fire. In the more than two weeks since, the fire has grown to more than 13,000 acres, closing trails, prompting evacuations in Sisters and engulfing much of Central Oregon in noxious smoke. As of Saturday, the fire was 32 percent contained, with a containment line stretching north of McKenzie Pass Highway.
As the fire grew, it evolved into a type-one incident, the highest priority, requiring assistance from municipal, state and federal fire crews from across the West.
On Friday, 673 people were stationed at the fire, hailing from New Mexico to Canada, according to Tom Story, spokesman from the Milli Fire.
“We basically built a small city here,” Daugherty added.
While every day fighting a fire is a little different, most days are structured similarly. Firefighters on the day shift — one of two shifts working on the fire — typically wake up around 5 a.m., roll out of their tents or mobile sleeping trucks, and grab some breakfast before the morning briefing at 6. Zach Jennings, the pit master for Latitude Catering, a Tucson, Arizona-based catering company stationed at the Milli Fire camp, said breakfast typically consists of oatmeal or grits, along with sausage, bacon or some other protein. Some mornings, he said pancakes round out the meal.
“We’re just out here trying to make sure the firefighters have a good meal before they go to bed, and a good meal when they wake up,” Jennings said.
The 6 a.m. briefing, one of two mass briefings on the day, features supervisors informing firefighters of weather and fire conditions, as well as planning updates, safety reminders and more. Once the briefing ends, the firefighters huddle in groups of 15 to 20 before gathering water, Gatorade, sack lunches and other supplies.
Baylee Thompson, who works at the supply tent, said she expects a 60- to 90-minute rush of firefighters after the meeting, as they gather nozzles for fire hoses, gasoline and other equipment. That stream is followed by a slow trickle of firefighters, mainly from the night shift, who are looking to replace supplies throughout the day.
The 18-year-old Thompson, who found this summer job through a program at Crook County High School, said firefighters have presented her with everything from melted and still-smoldering radios to pickup trucks covered in flame retardant. Thompson and the rest of the team track down new supplies, and send them on their way.
“They need it, and we’re willing to get it for them,” she said.
While the day shift of firefighters leaves for the fire lines, the day at the camp is just beginning for Daugherty and other officials. Daugherty said his morning is a slew of meetings — with other divisions, with liaisons to the community — beginning at 5 a.m. and continuing through lunch. Daugherty said his goal is to develop a plan of attack that can be presented to the next shift, while listening to updates on his radio that could alter that plan.
“You can hear in their voice if things are going good or bad out there,” Daugherty said.
Between 10 a.m. and noon, Latitude Catering begins prepping for dinner, which Jennings said ranges from steak to chicken cordon bleu.
Chef Travis Bendtin said he prepared 220 pounds of veggies and 315 pounds of meat for dinner Thursday, which included pulled pork and chicken wings. Jennings added that he smoked around 2,500 chicken wings that evening, in preparation for day-shift firefighters coming back from the fire.
After dinner, Latitude Catering packs their supplies into semi-trucks, a process that can take up to four hours and typically ends a little before midnight.
“It’s not a job for the squeamish,” Bendtin said.
For the night shift, dinner is a quick affair before they head out to the lines around 8 p.m. Victor Lujan, 31, a firefighter from New Mexico, said the trip to the fire line is typically about a half-hour, and they return to camp around 8 a.m. The Milli Fire is the fifth he’s been stationed on this season, and he said he’s excited to return home to his wife and two kids.
“They just started school, and they’re excited to see Dad,” Lujan said.
Firefighter Brian Filip, also on the night shift, added that he typically tries to go to sleep once he gets back to camp in the morning. A typical day of rest while camping only lasts three or four hours, as they sun makes it difficult to sleep.
Despite the fatigue, Filip said he’s happy to be working in Central Oregon, and added that Sisters has been nothing but supportive.
“It’s just breathtaking to see the support from the community,” he said.
Some residents have donated socks and other supplies, and Sisters Coffee Co. has provided another valuable service: free coffee. Jesse Durham, co-owner of Sisters Coffee, with a location on W. Hood Avenue in downtown Sisters, said the tradition of providing free coffee for nearby firefighters began during the B&B Complex fires in 2003.
During the Milli Fire, Durham estimated the company has given about $500 in coffee beans to the fire camp, in addition to cups ordered by individual firefighters. In the past, the company has packaged small, ready-to-drink containers of coffee that can be airlifted into fires and dropped alongside other supplies.
“We’re a small town, a small community,” Durham said. “And we love our forests.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org