CASTLE ROCK — Hours after a fire ignited near Woodland Sunday, crews of firefighters from around the Northwest started throwing their duffel bags in fire trucks and heading this way.
By mid-day Monday, a village of firefighters had sprung up next to Castle Rock Elementary School.
“You basically have to set up a town,” said Chuck Turley, the public information officer for the camp, who normally is the assistant manager of the Southwest Washington region of the Department of Natural Resources. “When the incident is over, it will disappear as quickly.”
It’s the first such camp established in the area since the Devil’s Peak fire north of Woodland 28 years ago.
Firefighting agencies decided to establish the camp after the Colvin Creek fire, which erupted Sunday, become the fifth and by far the biggest wildfire in the region.
Overnight, trucks and firefighters from as far away at Spokane and Prineville, Ore., started gathering at the school. By Tuesday, the camp held about 230 people.
The DNR brought in two mobile kitchens, with refrigerators and stoves in the back of trucks. A couple of semi trailers held food, water and other drinks. Firefighters eat in big, military surplus tents. Turley called the menus “very calorie-intensive,” with 6,000 calories recommended per day.
A trailer with showers is open from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. and again from 3 to 10 p.m. “Cleanliness in camp is a big deal,” Turley said.
A crew of 17 firefighters from Cowlitz and Wahkiakum county fire districts headed out to a fire near Yacolt at 6 a.m. Monday and didn’t get to camp until 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Such long hours “tend to happen on the first day” of a fire, said team leader Joe Tone, a firefighter for Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue. The team caught four hours of sleep in the school gym and was preparing to head to the Colvin Creek fire for overnight duty Tuesday.
Long hours are typical for other firefighters, too.
“For most of them, from the time they go on to the time they off shift, it’s a 16-hour day,” Turley said.
Though day sleepers can use the darkenened gym, most of the firefighters have pitched tents on the school field, near the playground.
A group of six members of the Washington Conservation Corps were setting up their tents Tuesday evening, shortly after arriving from Port Angeles. “We provide a lot of support in camp with water and lunches,” said Steven Lewis of Silverdale, one of the Corps members.
Inmates from state prisons have their own camping area surrounded by a red ribbon. Guards “watch them 24 hours a day,” Turley said.
The interagency fire team chose Castle Rock for the camp because of its central location to fires near Lewis River Road, Yacolt and Germany Creek, Turley said. It’s also a good location if more fires spring up in other parts of Southwest Washington, he said. That’s not unlikely considering the spell of hot, dry weather.
“Big downed logs and stumps are about like lumber in the lumber yard,” he said.
The camp location is also a safety consideration, with minimizing driving to fires a priority.
“We hurt more firefighters when they’re traveling to and from the fire than anything else,” Turley said.
Traffic accidents are a higher hazard than embers and smoke on the fire line.
Because of the high fire hazard this summer, the DNR and other firefighting agencies are springing into action more quickly, Turley said. “We are hitting fires more heavily, earlier,” he said. “We’re likely to call for additional support quicker.”
With only the Colvin Creek fire still active in the region, Turley predicted that the camp won’t stay in action long.
“I don’t expect people past Friday,” he said.
Turley said if another fire necessitates a new camp, it might reappear at the same location — but not if school’s back in session. Kids will have their playground and gym back, fires or not.