Firefighters at the Ham Lake blaze sleep, eat and shower in camps where the biggest problem is lots of snoring.
ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL - Behind the secured perimeter of the Ham Lake wildfire, a little town of FEMA-like government trailers has appeared almost overnight in a clearing near the end the Gunflint Trail.
There also are colorful seas of nylon dome tents sorely in need, inhabitants say, of a separate snoring section. A M*A*S*H-like heliport sits atop a fire-scarred hilltop, and there's enough chicken-fried steak in the freezer to keep a truckstop going for at least a long weekend.
The population of the week-old town now stands at about 1,000 and counting.
On Monday, when cooler, more humid weather lulled the 116-square-mile fire into taking a day off from threatening more structures, fire officials gave a dozen reporters and photographers a behind-the-lines look at the command center, base camp and other features of what is perhaps the largest firefighting effort ever undertaken in Minnesota.
The people of Great Basin Incident Management Team I sleep in tents, including Cmdr. Paul Broyles, according to spokesman Dick Birger.
Madonna Lengerich of Boise, Idaho, leader of the Resource Unit, said she has to sleep with earplugs. "You can walk through here at night and pick out where the worst snorers are," Lengerich said with a laugh.
The government trailers are offices for the self-described "camp slugs" -- meaning those who don't fight the fire directly. There's one for the top brass, another for the weather and fire-behavior forecasters and the weather balloons they're continuously launching, one for the guy who keeps 30 laptop computers working, another for the paymaster -- even one for the specially-equipped contractor hired to make 500 copies daily of the firefighting plan, including the latest maps, resource lists and more.
Lengerich said that in 27 years of firefighting, she has never seen a fire behave quite like this one. "I've never seen smoke columns as big as these," she said, adding that erratic winds keep making the fire switch directions, so that it seems sometimes to be moving in a circle.
The old filling station
A couple of miles up the trail, a base camp is tucked into a clearing. Another sea of dome tents is there, pitched atop a generous layer of wood chips trucked in to prevent it from turning into a field of mud if it rains.
There's a shower trailer with separate sections for men and women. A sign at the door says, "No boots allowed."
Large canvas circus-like tents are pitched nearby, and more semitrailers are parked all around. This is where 1,000 people eat breakfast and dinner each day. Lunches are eaten out of a bag in the field.
Firefighters can't enter the food tents without stopping by a long row of portable sinks. "Just like mom [required], everybody must wash their hands before they can eat," Lengerich said. "It avoids people getting what we call the 'Camp Crud.' "
Anita Hyde is in charge of feeding everybody. She is the kitchen unit manager for Stewarts Firefighter Food Catering, an Oregon contractor that rushed to Minnesota with its semitrailer rigs last week on less than a day's notice.
Hyde said she has been doing this for 21 years, so she has no trouble thinking big. This group will eat 675 pounds of beef, 1,800 dinner rolls and a couple of thousand half-pints of milk in one sitting, she said. She said that in honor of where they are, she plans to attempt walleye for dinner, perhaps later this week.
"These guys eat quite well," Hyde said. "With how hard they work, they deserve to be well-fed."