Walking around the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Blue Team camp at the Buffalo Bill State Park, one can’t help but noticing the resemblances to a small town.
“It’s a major operation,” said Schelly Olson, public information officer for the Rocky Mountain team. “I feel like the rest of the world could learn a lot from the way wildfires are managed as far as leadership.”
With 173 people inhabiting the camp, all of which fighting the Fishhawk Fire in some way or form, a certain amount of order and organization must take place.
In one corner of the camp is the logistics department, handling everything from fire mapping to finances, in a city of tent rows.
“The tents (are managed) down to the fan I might want to have in our yurt because it’s too hot, or an extension cord,” Olson said.
The team is well-staffed with many firefighting veterans, but for most at the camp it was the first wildfire they’ve worked this season, with wet conditions dotting the entire rocky mountain region.
Nearby sits the camp’s showers, rolled in and still attached to a semi-truck.
Due to the dangers that wildfires present, the aim is to keep staff as far from the physical fires as possible, while still performing active duties.
“Wildland fire is inherently dangerous,” Olson said.
The Blue Team keeps a meteorologist on staff who is constantly measuring weather patterns as well as safety officers who report findings to staff on the ground and at camp.
Phil Perkins, a Fort Collins, Colo., based safety officer, performs these duties, watching for hazards while on foot and in his vehicle.
“Just another set of eyes,” Perkins said.
Staff also use the Collector GIS mobile application to document for future fire responders exactly where the fire burned, potentially saving them unnecessary risks.
About 10 people on the Blue team run finances for the fire, analyzing every cost from airplane fuel to dinner forks.
“In busy years you meet a lot of people,” said finance staffer Janelle Wrigley, who lives in Rawlins. “That’s what I like about it and it’s not what I do everyday.”
Lars Nylander works in the communications department, relaying messages from the field and vice-versa, often to safety officers like Perkins.
“We make sure all the units out in the field ‘copy’ the weather,” Nylander said. “For all emergencies we dispatch the medical personnel to the incident.”
In another end of the camp sits the dining hall section, equipped with full condiment dispensers, soda bar and sanitation station. Just like any restaurant there are select hours (6:30 a.m.-9:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.) diners must make in order to get their food. Olson said meals at the camp are super-sized to provide necessary calories for the firefighters laboring throughout the day.
“When you have a fire lunch (box) it is a giant bag,” Olson said. “They have to have a certain caloric intake.
“Very good, high-protein so they can do their jobs.”
The Blue team operates long shifts either 6 a.m-8 p.m. or 10 a.m.-midnight, with a few staff working through the night. With the sky still dark and coffee barely brewed, about 60 staff members gather for the 6 a.m. meeting to discuss plans for the day.
“The plan is laid out and everyone has to support the plan and accept the risk,” Olson said. “If there’s anyone in there that says, ‘hey this risk is just too much,’ they have that ability to voice those concerns.”
After 14 days of work on the fire, staff must take at least a two-day break.
Michael Roche is a seasonal wildfire fighter from San Diego working on the Fishhawk Fire. He said this has been his first foray in Wyoming. The majority of his work has involved structure prepping, mitigating dead timber and grass.
“Wyoming is beautiful,” Roche said. “Definitely bringing the woman back over here.”
Since most of the Blue Team members are not from the region, the camp also provided instruction for how to use bear spray.
“We have a training-briefing everyday at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” Olson said.
Almost all of the staff at the camp either sleeps in tents or in vehicles. Also, a small contingency of Hotshot staff slept near the fire at the Buffalo Bill cabins. It isn’t glamorous but that hardly matters with the bigger picture of duty at-hand.
Olson, who worked the destructive Spring Creek Fire in southwest Colorado in 2018 saw firsthand how impactful fires and mitigation can be.
“I was in the room when they announced whose house was saved and whose was not,” Olson said. “That was pretty emotional.”