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Behind the scenes with
firefighters on the Goat Creek Fire

Firefighters line up for showers, a luxury of modern fire camps.

Cooks for the Day Crew, (left to right). Delores Freyhotz, Clarie Wood, Evelyn Anderson and Leita Anderson. Not pictured, Debbie Hulett. Also not pictured, Night Crew: Barbara Frye, Linda Guizzo, Lynda Matthew, Lili Wood and Leona Styler.

Tent City. Neat rows of tents are just one sign of teamwork and organization among fire crews. Tents pictured here were set up by the Wolf Creek Hot Shot Crew from Oregon.

Cheryl Kuka, squad boss with the Missoula Indian Center #1 Camp Crew, took a turn at sharpening tools last week. Assisted by Tad Cross from the Eurek Ranger Station. Cross sharpened more than 150 tools during one 8-hour period.

Condon resident, Dave Stenhouse, camp crew, helps roll up fire hose at the Condon Work Center on Friday.

The Shower Guys. Left to right: Ray Hartley, Lloyd Tankersley and Lloyd Jenson, with Snake River Showers from Ontario, Oregon.

Forest Service Information Officer, Diana Enright, explained the Fire Camp schedule to visitors last week.

Story & Photos
by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
May 14, 1998

More than 250 firefighters and support personnel arrived in Condon last week to help bring the 200-acre Goat Creek Fire north of Condon under control. A bustling Fire Camp was set up at the Condon Work Center and the round-the-clock activities of everyone from bus drivers to cooks caused quite a stir in this community of only 800 people.

"I tell you it's a busy place here," Ray Hartley said on Friday. Hartley, who owns Snake River Showers from Ontario, Oregon, provides portable showers to fire camps throughout the western United States. His crew was a welcome sight to hot, dusty and tired firefighters last week.

"I can tell you that everybody that knows us, loves us," he quipped. His portable showers can accommodate camps with over 1,000 people. "We can do 1200 washups in 24 hours," he said.

A stroll through the camp on Saturday with Forest Service Information Officer Diana Enright led past the showers, and rows and rows of fire crew tents. A dozen portable toilets lined the driveway beside the bunkhouse road. Offices for communications, supply, medical and finance personnel were set up in garage stalls in the Forest Service shop. People were busy everywhere, sharpening tools, rolling fire hose, packing gear and moving equipment.

"This is a really nice facility for a fire camp," Enright explained. "We're normally in the middle of a cow pasture with no trees."

Enright, and her interagency Incident Management Team of 20 to 25 people, travel throughout Region One of the Forest Service during fire season, and set up camps to provide facilities, planning, and support for firefighters. Last week, they came to the aid of state fire crews. "They'll throw everything they have locally at it (the fire), and when it goes beyond their ability, we come in," she explained.

With sunny days and temperatures in the high 70's, people using the camp last at Condon appreciated the tall trees that shade the area. Except maybe the cooks, who probably didn't have time to contemplate the virtues of the fire camp.

Leita Anderson, who has cooked for the Forest Service at Condon since 1959, worked 13-hour shifts every day last week, helping nine other women turn out meals for everybody in camp.

"We've got a good crew," she said of the local women who were also working in the kitchen. Two five-person crews feed everybody in camp, working 9 to 9 around the clock.

In addition to the 600 sandwiches the cooks put together daily, the women on the night shift turn out hundreds of pounds of eggs, toast, pancakes and bacon for breakfast, a process that starts at midnight. The Condon-area women who worked the night shift are Barbara Frye (head cook), Linda Guizzo, Lynda Matthew, Lili Wood, and Leona Styler.

The day crew, including Leita Anderson (head cook), Debbie Hulett, Clarie Wood, Delores Freyholtz, and Evelyn Anderson, is responsible for dinner. One night they served 170 pounds of meat sauce with more than 150 pounds of spaghetti, what Leita Anderson described as a typical meal. In addition, the dinner included tossed salad, carrots, pickles, celery sticks, dessert, and, of course, coffee.

"We go through a lot of coffee," she laughed. Firefighters and support crews helped themselves to about 800 cups of coffee every morning, she said.

Ordering enough food for meal preparation, and making sure the orders reach the camp on time, is probably the worst part of being a head cook, Anderson said. "Getting groceries when we need them is hard sometimes," she explained. Fire camp personnel order as much food locally as they can. The rest of the groceries come from Kalispell stores, she said.

Firefighters love the homecooked meals, compared to the catered food they often get. "Everybody's been real satisfied," Anderson said.

Among those who had kudos for the cooks was Dave Stenhouse, Condon resident who was working with the camp crew last week.

"Those cooks deserve a lot of praise. They do long shifts, but the food's always good," Stenhouse said.

Home-cooked food is a big improvement over what firefighters ate in the 1970s.

"It used to be C-rats, K-rations and gut-bags," laughed food manager Bill Packer, who came here from Hungry Horse Ranger Station to work at the camp.

Fire camps have changed a lot in recent years, according to retired Forest Service Ranger, Clarence Stilwell, who toured the Condon fire camp on Friday.

"It's all different," he said, compared to the fire camps he remembers in the 1940s and 1950s. "We just built 'em out in the woods, We'd sweat it out 'til the fire was out," he said. Today, he said, they bring facilities to the fire so crews don't have to "rough it."

Stilwell, who worked as ranger at the Condon Ranger Station in 1945, lives in the Swan Valley with his wife, Mabel.

Stilwell wasn't the only local resident invited to tour the camp last week. School children from Swan Valley Elementary, Salmon Prairie and Swan Lake enjoyed field trips here, led by Diana Enright.

Some of the school children thought they might like to learn how to fight fires. "I've got 12 potential firefighters here in the Swan Valley," Enright grinned "They think that being a firefighter would be pretty cool," she said. "They think you can eat whatever you want and don't have to do the dishes."

Enright told the students that being a firefighter takes trust and teamwork. "When you are in a life and death situation, these people can obviously depend on each other," she said. She added that firefighters, much like soldiers, train and work as teams. Their work is orderly, as evidenced by the way their tents are set up and the way they do everyday chores, like eating or packing their gear.

Most of the fire crews who worked on the Goat Creek Fire are part of the Montana Indian Firefighter network, she explained. One Hot Shot crew from Oregon was also called in to help on the fire, because of their experience in rough, steep terrain, she said.

Enright makes it a point to contact local residents whenever her fire management team moves into a community. She visited with Condon-area business owners last week.

"Everybody's really scared, and they should be, because this is really dry for this time of year," she said.

Clarence Stilwell agrees with Enright's observations. "I don't like it," he said of the current fire situation. "I keep watching those clouds go over, and it still doesn't rain," he said.

Leita Anderson, who grew up in the Swan Valley, echoed Stilwell's concerns. "I'm really afraid for the valley this year, it's so dry," she said. Anderson, who remembers the busy fire season in 1988 when her kitchen crews turned out some 20,000 meals for firefighters in the Swan Valley, recalled other large fires in the area, but all of them were much later in the season. "This is very early," she said.

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Seeley Swan to Welcome

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