Most firefighters arrive on the scene of a wildfire with their own gear. But if they face an extended fight, they need a source for replenishment and surge support when a fire camp scales up.
Amazon.com boasts it has “Earth’s Biggest Selection.” But when a big wildfire breaks out in the West and hundreds of responders need to be equipped and fed, fire bosses order from a different warehouse.
There are five regional wildfire supply storehouses in the Northwest operated by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which you might call the Amazon.com for wildland firefighting.
From the outside they look like any other warehouse. Inside the requisite forklifts are stocking or plucking just about everything you could ever need to fight wildfire -- except for maybe rain. One of these complexes, called the Great Basin Cache, is at the edge of the Boise Airport. It’s one of the biggest of 16 federal and state wildfire support centers, formally known as caches, around the country.
"Not a lot of people really think about the logistics that go into making our firefighters successful out on the line,” Great Basin Cache assistant manager Nicole Hallisey said. “There is a whole army of folks back behind the scenes that maybe aren't getting the press or getting the kudos."
Hallisey is behind the scenes now. Before she worked on an elite "hotshot" fire crew and then later as an air tanker dispatcher.
Batteries, guidebooks and electronics
The warehouse contains millions of dollars of inventory waiting to ship out on demand. Of the most popular items to be shipped, number one is AA batteries. More than 850,000 of those went out of here last year, mostly to power hand-held radios.
Also shipped in great quantities is a pocket-sized, 110-page notebook of references and safety checklists.
"You know, we all are very good at remembering things,” Hallisey explained. “But when we're under pressure, it's always best to have something to come back to."
Hallisey said the checklist booklet known as the Incident Pocket Response Guide is now mandatory equipment for wildland firefighters.
Another wing of the complex ships out portable, satellite-connected weather stations. Electronics technician Justin Dopp said these get sent to large, backcountry fires to provide accurate spot weather forecasts.
"Usually these weather stations are about the second most important thing to set up,” he noted. “They have to establish communications first, get radio techs out there and get repeater sites set up. Then weather is about the next most important thing."
With a couple taps on a radio keypad, a firefighter can get a personal weather readout from the remote, portable station. In a matter of seconds, the hand-held radio comes alive with a computer-generated voice speaking the current temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction.
A really big coffee maker and food fit for a king
Also among the other best-sellers are the collapsible water jugs called cubitainers.
“This is one of our very, very popular items,” Hallisey said. “Especially the five gallon cubitainer because, 'No water, no work,' as we like to say when we’re on the line.”
Speaking from experience, Hallisey said coffee ranks right up there with water. Fortunately, the fire camp cooks can order the biggest coffee maker you may ever see, a propane-heated urn that brews 20 gallons at a time.
It’s nearly the size of an old galvanized garbage can.
“It is. And depending who’s making the coffee it could taste like it was brewed in an old galvanized garbage can,” Hallisey said with a laugh.
In an adjacent building, storehouse staff assemble kits to truck in or parachute to remote fire camps. Those include first aid packages, chainsaw boxes and food.
Inside an air-drop food box for smokejumpers, Hallisey said, "You've got coffee, hot cocoa mix, you’ve got some Kleenex, tea, beef jerky, some good Idaho potatoes…"
The elite smokejumpers get an upgrade from regular military rations, which the support center also stocks.
"They get to eat like kings,” Hallisey said. “Sometimes it's great when you're on a fire and you have hiked into a place where there are smokejumpers and you can partake in their meals with them."
Fire cache staff take pride in how much of the gear they send out gets returned for re-use. Hoses, pumps, chainsaws and camping gear get cleaned, refurbished and tested before being placed back on the warehouse shelves for the next wildfire.
Hallisey said her operation issued more than $38.1 million worth of firefighting supplies in 2014. The cache received back about $35.4 million in gear from the front lines by the end of fire season.
The Great Basin Cache mainly serves southern Idaho, Utah, Nevada, the eastern Sierra of California and small parts of Wyoming and Arizona. Sister wildfire support centers are located in Redmond and LaGrande, Oregon, Wenatchee, Washington, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.