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Fueling the Firefighters: What California’s First Responders Eat

For those battling California’s wildfires, much-needed meals happen on the fly

It’s Uncrustables for lunch again. Twelve days into a multi-week mission at the front lines of the Carr fire — which as of today has burned more than 229,000 acres across Northern California, and is the most destructive fire ever to erupt in Shasta County — firefighters have eaten their two dozenth Uncrustable. These crustless, prefab PB&J sandwiches are a dense source of calories on the go, a sort of ploughman’s lunch for late capitalist America, courtesy of Smucker’s. But they’re not particularly satisfying, nor do they feed the soul — they are a meal of necessity, not one of nourishment.

It’s almost 100 degrees outside by 10 a.m. on August 3, and the fire has already torn through nearly 132,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes; at this point of the fire season, it’s only 39% contained. Firefighters are lugging 45-plus pound packs straight into the heat of the fire around Whiskeytown Lake, northwest of the city of Redding.

They are fighting one of the most important and dangerous battles in the country: The 2018 fire season is on track to be one of the most serious in California’s recorded history. According to Cal Fire, 876,428 acres have already burned (as of August 26; updates are posted every Sunday), more than five times the average from 2013 to 2017 — and the dry season just started. The Mendocino Complex Fires, burning across Lake, Colusa, Glenn, and Mendocino Counties, have burned more than 459,000 acres of Mendocino National Forest and its once-beautiful surroundings; it’s now the largest fire in California’s recorded history. The Carr Fire — most famous for its terrifying “firenado,” a 143-mile-per-hour whorl of flame — has taken eight lives with it, including those of three firefighters.

In order to take on these massive threats to human and natural life, thousands of firefighters pour into fire zones from across the state and country. Crews from up and down the West Coast, as well as from states as far afield as New Jersey, Michigan, and South Carolina, came to Northern California to do their part in the smoky melee. They arrive in strike teams, four or five heavy fire trucks at a time, and establish themselves at incident command posts, run by whichever agency is leading the operation. In the case of the Carr Fire, it’s a unified command of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the US Forest Service, and the National Parks Service.

The teams’ base camps are a safe distance from the firelines, and provide everything the crews need to provision themselves for battle: fire maps, showers, and a mess tent to feed all comers, both on their way out to the front lines and on their way back: Firefighters need sufficient sustenance to get through long, hot days.

Meals at the mess tents are prepared in mobile kitchen units (MKUs) — basically a kitchen on wheels — run by CAL FIRE and staffed by inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The use of inmates for cooking meals and fighting wildfires, as reported by Vox, is controversial; low-level offenders are given the opportunity to “volunteer” for these jobs, but for their labor they are paid just $1 an hour, plus $2 per day.

The breakfasts prepared at the MKUs are a study of the classics: pancakes, hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon. It’s certainly belly-filling fare, but not always completely satisfying. “For breakfast we had French toast… it was like a hockey puck. The potatoes tasted like they were two days old,” said Nick, a firefighter who came to the front lines of the Carr Fire from Colorado. “I had some fruit though; I got a big bowl of fruit.” Another firefighter chimed in: “I only ate three Tums this morning... Yesterday morning was a hamburger patty with gravy on it, over an egg, and macaroni salad. I mean, [the meals are] okay.” A breakfast burrito experiment came up a few times as well: a large tortilla sequestering a thimbleful of scrambled eggs and a few lonely black beans.

As the crews head out of base camp, they take along enough food to sustain themselves for their shifts. Depending on the team’s function and the fire’s demand, they can be out as long as 24 hours before returning, sometimes even longer. The standard 24-hour Line Lunch, prepared by contractors who bid for the job, is 4,000 calories and follows a pattern: dense proteins, salty snacks, sweets, and some stalwart fruits and vegetables chosen for their ability to withstand the conditions: “Stuff to keep the troops moving,” said a representative from Cal Fire.

Under the beating of a helicopter’s blades, a firefighter described the contents of his 24-hour bag: “You get the normal beefy sandwich, a bunch of snacky stuff. There’s some fruit in there. A lot of Uncrustables… though a lot of them go in the trash.”

To see these beautiful sylvan mountaintops as a firefighter is to see neither the forest nor the trees — all they can see is fuel. As new plumes of smoke rise in the distance, crews start shouldering their heavy packs to get ready, and many of them have a final bite of lunch and a few swigs of energy drink — their own fuel for the next 24-hour clash. As of this writing, the Carr Fire is 97% contained, the Mendocino Fire Complex 93% contained, and fires continue to burn the length of California, from the Oregon border to Orange County. “It’s gonna be a long year,” Nick said, as he hurried to his truck, ready to head back out to the fireline.

Sam Chapple-Sokol is a writer and researcher who focuses on the role of food as a tool of diplomacy. He was volunteering with World Central Kitchen at the front lines of the Carr and Mendocino Complex fires when researching this story.
Editor: Erin DeJesus