When the Schultz fire exploded into a raging wildfire Sunday afternoon and garnered the highest level of firefighting priority in the nation, hundreds of firefighters rushed to northern Arizona to battle the fast-moving blaze.
Behind that initial attack, and in just a matter of 24 hours, a mini-city of support assembled at Cromer Elementary School.
Welcome to ICC, or incident command center, where firefighters can eat scrambled eggs with green chili, reload on sunscreen and bug repellent, get a medical checkup, take a shower and shave, fill up on cookies and ice cream, check out the fire-tracking maps and then find a cot to crash on.
The command center serves as a base camp for the personnel -- more than 950 strong (including up to 800 firefighters) -- assigned to the Schultz fire. That total includes "overhead" or supervisory workers who support the firefighting effort mostly from the ground.
"There's a tremendous amount of infrastructure to put in place," said Troy Waskey, who is on staff with recreation, lands and minerals at the Tonto National Forest. "That's the beauty of the ICC structure: You can put a team in place with the resources that are needed within 24 hours."
AN ACTION PLAN
Run as tightly as a military operation, the world of wildfire fighting is full of acronyms and abbreviations, specific uniform requirements, and lots of rules and orders, many spelled out daily in the IAP, or incident action plan, passed out in booklet form to all concerned personnel during the morning briefing.
"This is how we start every day," Waskey said. "Basically it tasks everybody for the day." Names of every firefighter and every overhead worker are listed, beginning with Incident Commander Dugger Hughes and including agency representatives and officers in charge of planning, logistics, communications, finance and field operations.
Also inside the booklet are fire weather forecasts, fire behavior information and maps of how fire crews are supposed to get out to assigned areas.
Updates are posted in the briefing area and bits of news are announced, such as that Girl Scouts would be bringing cookies and ice cream to the ICC Thursday night.
There are also words of caution, like those from Jim Payne, lead public information officer, who warned mop-up crews to be thoughtful when around residents affected by the fire.
"Be aware of your war stories when you're around talking to these folks," he said. "These folks have been through a lot."
COUNT THEIR CALORIES
To keep up with their rigorous assignments, firefighters need to consume about 6,000 calories a day, Waskey said.
"You're digging a line with a shovel," said Larry Tunforss, a spokesman with the Bullhead City Fire Department. "You could be digging for six to eight hours."
Thirty workers with Port-A-Pit caterers out of Tucson have been cooking and preparing breakfasts, to-go lunches and full dinners.
Breakfast on Thursday was scrambled eggs and green chili, bacon, home-fried potatoes, and "oatmeal every day!" according to the posted menu.
Catering companies, working under contract, bring in everything: food and kitchen trailers, beverage stations, tables, chairs, large white tents and hand-washing areas.
"It's all buffet style and nobody is serving, and that goes from the incident commander down to the firefighters," Waskey said.
Nearby is the lunch trailer where engines can pull in and send out a "grunt" to pick up water, ice and a big boxes full individual lunches, Waskey said.
Some firefighters, like Jeff Miles and Cody Crismore, from Sacramento Ranger District in New Mexico picked up their box of lunches early in the morning.
"Usually they're sandwiches, fruit and maybe candy," Crismore said. "This is our fourth day. We've been jumping around quite a bit with different divisions."
The evening meal runs from 5:30 to 9 or so, because crews straggle in late.
"Dinners are just as quality," Tunforss said. "Last night was tri-tip."
WAYS TO REFRESH
Fighting a fire is dirty, exhausting work, and a hot shower at the end of a long day is imperative.
Daryl Wood, of Oak City, Utah, is the owner of a mobile shower service under contract to serve fire incidents in the West.
He said there are about 43 such units operating nationwide.
The water tank feeding the shower trailer holds 2,635 gallons of water.
"Mornings don't use much, but for a day, I'll go through two of these trucks," he said. "If we get busy, we'll see three truckloads."
Shower stalls for women are separate from stalls for men, and everyone has their own private area, two mirrors, a step stool, hanging hooks and a soap dispenser.
"This is the Cadillac of showers," said Tunforss, who also said women make up about 10 to 15 percent of the firefighting force.
A row of 10 white sinks outside provide areas for teeth brushing and shaving.
It is not unusual for crews in the heat of action to work 14- to 16-hour days.
If they don't sleep on the fire line, they come back to individual tents dotting the school grounds and a field across the street.
For day sleeping, tents are set up in classrooms, like Mr. Zanone's Room 50, where two tents are in place.
"People have different priorities," Tunforss said. "Like, 'I don't want the sun in the morning,' and some don't want to be near a generator."
OUTFIT A CITY
At the supply and exchange station on the back side of the school, soiled, frayed and torn clothing, including shirts, pants and gloves, can be thrown into bins in an exchange for new, recycled and clean items.
"We're the Walmart of the fires," said Steve Frick, who's from Minnesota and is the receiving and distribution manage. "We've got everything to support the firefighters up on the line. We can outfit a city. If we don't have it, we can get it from the cache in Prescott."
Everything includes boxes of toilet paper, paper towels, trash bags, office supplies, generators, sleeping mats, coolers, Gatorade, fire hoses and fusee flares that produce intense heat without explosion.
"They're for igniting fires so you can do backburns," Waskey explained. "It's a big torch."
A 10-person Pima crew fetches orders, unloads trucks and organizes supplies.
"They are the unsung heroes," Frick said. "We couldn't operate without them."
MEDICAL AND MAPS
Three paramedics with the local Guardian Medical Transport have been operating the medical unit for the fire.
While Matt Marks and Alicia Motes stay at the unit at Cromer, Adal Lopez has been working out on the line.
"We've only transported three patients from the fire -- two dehydrations and one cracked rib," Marks said. "We're happy with that."
"Considering all the people who are here," Motes added.
Just inside the medical unit inside the school, the GIS shop (geographic information system), Max Wahlberg, a Prescott ecologist, has been cranking out up to 500 maps a day for use by the incident team and distribution to media.
Retired firefighter Rob Beery from Payson specializes in fire behavior, which he has mapped on one of the 12 laptops in the shop.
"The first day it really kicked butt," he said. "The second day, a little less and since then it's been decreasing each day. That's obviously how it's supposed to go."
OTHER IMPORTANT STOPS
The first and the last stop for fire personnel is inside the school's auditorium, where workers help with check-ins or demobilization at the DEMOB station.
"We take down your information on when you're going to be home," said Laila Lienesch, from Albuquerque, N.M. "If you have days left, we work on trying to get you reassigned."
Vehicles are also given a complete evaluation for possible damage done during the incident response.
Resource, training and finance units order supplies, help with fire certification and process Crew Time Report sheets so everyone can get paid.
Waskey estimated "grunts" might make $10 an hour and career firefighters or top support workers can earn $45 an hour or more.
"Overtime is time and a half, so it gets you up there," he said.
Before going out the door of the school, a table was piled high with donated items from the community, like raspberry Danish twists, sourdough bread loaves, fresh melon, as well as thank-you cards and posters proclaiming, "You Rock, Hot Shots."
Betsey Bruner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-225