SHERIDAN — Thirty miles northeast of Lovell off U.S Highway 14, a makeshift town of trailers and yurts appears out of nowhere.
This 40-acre camp didn’t exist two weeks ago and may not exist in another two weeks. But right now, it is the center of the battle against the 685-acre Crater Ridge Fire.
“The whole purpose of the FOB — forward operating base — is to put all the services that could help the firefighters as close to them as possible,” Crater Ridge Fire Facilities Unit Leader Jerry Hauser said. “They come in here each night to get their meals, take showers and so on.”
The Forward Operating Base serves as the headquarters for the ongoing fight against the fire, which was started July 17 from suspected lightning.
The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Blue Team was ordered and took command of the fire July 19. Crews totaling 194 people, engines, heavy equipment, helicopters and aerial supervision are working on suppressing the fire. Fighting the fire has cost $5.2 million as of Monday, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.
As of July 30, the fire was still 0% contained, according to the fire’s Public Information Officer Kelsey Bean, but was slightly more stable. The fire grew by 40 acres over the weekend.
“Since we’ve gotten the cooler temperatures and a little more moisture in the air, it’s staying pretty steady, and there’s been minimal fire behavior,” Bean said.
The difficult part about fighting the fire has been its location, according to Bean and Hauser. The rugged terrain is largely inaccessible to firefighters, with the majority of firefighting done by helicopter thus far.
“It is very inaccessible,” Hauser said. “For quite a few days, we couldn’t even get crews down there because of the safety issues…It’s just rugged, very steep and rocky.”
Firefighters are also keeping an eye on the wind, which could easily cause even a small fire like Crater Ridge to go out of control, Hauser said.
“Wyoming has got a lot of dead wood, so any time you get a fire started, even if it’s small, you really need to keep an eye on it, because embers will fly as far as a mile away and start a new spot fire,” Hauser said.
The Forward Operating Base is located nearly nine miles away from the central firefighting action, according to Hauser. At maximum capacity, the FOB is slightly larger than the town of Clearmont, with roughly 200 people coming to the camp for breakfast, dinner, showers and internet service.
As manager, Hauser oversees the day-to-day operations of the base — ensuring firefighters are fed, washed and cared for. He was also responsible for converting 40 acres in the middle of nowhere into a functional headquarters.
“When we get here, it’s just this 40 acres of nothing, you know?” Hauser said. “We’ve got to figure out how to lay it out… and usually it revolves around where the kitchen is going to go. That’s sort of the centerpiece of the forward operating base.”
The kitchen serves warm breakfasts and dinners to the firefighters, Hauser said, and also provides them with lunches to take to the fire site.
Before visiting the kitchen, everybody is required to wash his hands at the hot hand wash station, Hauser said. This is just one way in which Hauser is preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the FOB. He also requires the use of face masks in the kitchen area, and hand sanitizer is available at the supply tent.
All those preventative measures have kept firefighters safe and healthy so far, Hauser said.
“We had a scare about a week ago,” Hauser said. “We had a couple of kitchen staff that weren’t feeling well. One of them was just a cold. The other one we actually sent down to the hospital to get tested, and they tested negative. It was altitude sickness because we’re at 9,300 feet here. But we’re really concerned (about the spread of COVID), and extreme precautions are taken.”
On the other side of the camp is the office trailer of Dan Baker, receiving distribution manager for the FOB. Baker is in charge of ordering and procuring any supplies needed at the base from the 15 fire supply caches located across the country.
“It’s like a portable Walmart, and generally we have access to anything we need,” Baker said. “The general products we have real quick access to, but some of the specialty items that come up from one fire to the next, the more remote we are, the harder it is to procure them.”
The toughest item to procure for this fire, according to Baker, has been hose adapters needed because firefighters are using larger diameter hoses than normal to facilitate better water handling.
The FOB has access to internet service through portable DrillCom satellite systems, but these systems have their limits, Hauser said. Those at the FOB can send emails, but not text, and phone service is spotty.
That’s why some of the administrative staff assigned to the fire, including Bean, have set up their own base of operations, known as the Incident Command Post, at Lovell High School.
“At the Incident Command Post, we’ll have some of our operations sections chiefs, public information officers, the folks who make the maps… and also the incident commander,” Bean said. “A lot of those folks will be down there just because we also need connectivity. We need to be able to connect to the internet and get information out as quickly as we possibly can.”
Hauser and the rest of the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Blue Team departed over the weekend to take a much-needed six-day break. They were replaced with what is known as a Type 3 team. Compared to the Type 2 team, a Type 3 team is slightly scaled down with fewer leadership roles and a smaller FOB, according to Hauser.
With the Type 2 team ending its 14-day shift over the weekend, it was determined it would be best to bring in a Type 3 team, which is still capable of doing what needs to be done, but at a lower price, Hauser said.
Given the general stability of the fire, it made sense to scale down the response at this time, Bean said.
“The decision to have the Type 3 come in has to do with the complexity of the fire,” Bean said. “There aren’t really any structures at risk and not much out there because it is remote, so it can go to our Type 3 team.”
For up-to-date information on the Crater Ridge Fire, see inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/7685.