Fighting Fire with Food

By Alan Richman

Working long days under trying conditions, mobile caterers serve thousands of first-responders combatting wildfires and
other disasters

 

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Where’s the fire? For member companies of the National Mobile Shower and Catering Association (NMSCA), it could be anywhere, and they’re prepared to pack up their gear and get to the site as quickly as possible.

Under contract to the federal government, the NMSCA firms provide essential services to firefighters and other first-responders in all sorts of emergencies, including hurricanes such as Katrina.

Most of the work takes place in the Western states and is done on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. When wildfires rage on lands that are federally owned and controlled, these agencies send hundreds or thousands of men and women to combat the blaze.

Every one of these firefighters must be fed, given a chance to occasionally clean off the grime, sweat and smoke, and, when possible, afforded a place to grab a couple hours of sleep.

“Fighting fires is hard, dangerous work,” says Steve Nelson, president of the association and also head of his own company, Big Sky Mobile Catering, headquartered in Missoula, Mont. “We not only have to prepare plenty of food, but it has to be the right kind of food. Typically, we have to hit a goal of about 6,500 calories a day per person.

“We lean heavily on protein—a lot of steak, prime rib and breakfast meats—but we also make sure they’re getting enough fats and carbs to see them through long hours under unbelievably stressful conditions,” Nelson adds.

There’s not much that’s frilly about the operation, yet the food served must meet several requirements. “All of us in the NMSCA understand that we have to deliver wholesome, tasty, appealing dishes, with enough variety to satisfy many different preferences and dietary requirements,” says Nelson.

What’s more, caterers doing this type of work need to make sure they’re adhering to the rulebook. “We have to be fully aware of changing rules governing food safety and handling,” says Nelson. “There are a lot of regulations to make sure we are doing everything in a safe and clean manner. One of the worst things that could happen would be to have groups of firefighters getting sick due to unsafe food handling.”

This kind of work is not for everyone. Every assignment is critical in nature and may even involve an element of danger—if the wind shifts unexpectedly and threatens the camp area, for example. There is a need for expensive specialized mobile equipment, including at least three semi tractor-trailers. And it requires huge commitments of time and energy—14- to 16-hour days for the full duration of the incident, which sometimes lasts months.

Even getting hired has its suspense. “We have to submit detailed bids in order to win a contract and obtain preferred territories,” says Tom Stewart, owner of Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering, Inc., in Redmond, Ore. “And we have to go through this bidding process every five years if we want to be renewed.”

The process has kept the 78-year-old Stewart, who co-owns the firm with his three daughters, on his toes—and sometimes on the move. “You don’t always get the territory of your choice, so you may have to shift your headquarters—and your home—to where you’ll be working most of the time over the next five years,” he says. “That’s happened to us more than once. But whatever territory we get, we’d better be able to do what we say we can, or they’ll fire us.”

Just like the job itself, breaking into the ranks of NMSCA members is no easy feat. “No one walks in off the street and gets started in this business,” stresses Bryan Scofield, CEO and owner of Scofield Catering & Management in Ventura, Calif. “You have to be well funded, well equipped and experienced—and then you have to be able to demonstrate that you can do what’s needed.”

Scofield, who was trained as a corporate chef, says his company started out as a “call-when-needed” participant. The national dispatch office in Boise, Idaho, gave the firm a few smaller assignments, and when it performed well, Scofield pursued his first federal territorial contract in 2009.

Unlike some of the other NMSCA members, who only work during the fire “season,” roughly May through October, “we are year-round caterers,” says Scofield. Even when his mobile operations are at their busiest, Scofield Catering has enough personnel and resources to continue servicing celebrity events and other smaller parties, too.

The owner, however, is out in the field with the trucks. “We have a cold kitchen and two hot kitchens with a total of 17 convection ovens,” Scofield says. “Food is refrigerated at 41° F. And we can serve three meals a day to as many as 2,000 people, for a grand total of 6,000 meals every 24 hours.”

The owners of Blagg’s Food Service in Redding, Calif., Laura and Steve Abel devote their time in the off-season—from November through April—to “equipment maintenance and upgrades, product sourcing, menu planning and recruiting,” says Steve.

Veterans of the fire support industry for more than three decades, the Abels say they have no problem keeping employees engaged and ready during the season. “They know they can earn pretty good wages if they’re ready to go when the call comes in,” says Laura. “They are paid hourly. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and under California overtime regulations, the wages they can earn are very motivating.”

However, building up the staff can be challenging at the beginning of each new season. Even so, Blagg’s has about a 75% return rate.

“While the primary cook staff has substantial food service experience, many employees have no fire or food service background,” says Steve. “We are a seasonal business that attracts people for the adventure, who have other seasonal jobs, or are students or semi-retired. It’s a little bit of a gypsy lifestyle that usually works best for people who are OK with being away from home for weeks at a time.”

The Abels also enjoy the lifestyle their occupation entails. “We enjoy the challenge,” says Steve. “Every camp is different in size, leadership and logistics, so we never know what kind of obstacles we may need to overcome. Not knowing until the phone rings where we will go and who we will be feeding next is very exciting.”

“Meeting people from all over the country, hearing and seeing the gratitude of the firefighters, and developing and nurturing our staff as a strong and efficient team are all very rewarding,” adds Laura.

Other members of the NMSCA echo the same sentiment—that although the work is long and hard, it’s satisfying to play a key role in combatting natural disasters.

“Not many people can do what we do and under incredibly difficult circumstances,” says Nelson. “On a moment’s notice, we can serve food hundreds of miles away. It’s a challenging task, but our group does an outstanding job, and we provide a necessary and great service to the government.”

For more information on the National Mobile Shower & Catering Association, visit nmsca.com.

From top to bottom: Firefighters dine on food served by North Slope Catering, an NMSCA member with locations in Alaska and California. To meet calorie requirements of 6,500 per day, per person, a sample meal from North Slope could include hearty burgers and fries. Another NMSCA member, Scofield Catering & Management, based in Ventura, Calif., serves first-responders dinner.

All Washed Up

There are 16 food catering and 16 mobile shower operations in the NMSCA, with a few members overlapping and offering both services. S & K Transport LLC, in Darby, Mont., is one of those with showers only.

“My wife Kelly and I have been in the trucking business since 1977,” says Steve Ralston, the company’s president. “After the huge fires of 2000 in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, we decided to build a shower unit.”

Relying on their experience in trucking, the couple decided on a configuration that used three semi trucks and trailers. “We have 15 private rooms, each with a 36-inch neo-angle shower, an exhaust fan, a four-foot fluorescent light and an outlet. Our supply trailer has two gensets [portable power generators, which convert fuel into electrical power] of 35kW each and a propane-fired boiler. We can produce 1,800 gallons per hour of 120-degree water continuously, even at an 80-degree rise.”

S & K’s first big job was for FEMA after Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss., in 2005. “We were there for 90 days,” says Ralston. “Pretty much all shower units and kitchens were called out to that one. We then were awarded a USFS national contract and have been working forest fires since.”

When a wildfire gets big enough to warrant a fire camp—typically 150 or more firefighters in the field for three days—the showers are called out right after the kitchens.

“We can handle a camp of about a thousand people,” says Ralston. “When it gets bigger than that, the USFS usually calls a second mobile shower facility. The biggest camp we were ever in was the Station Fire of 2009, just outside of Los Angeles. At its peak, that camp had over 5,000 firefighters. There were three kitchens and five mobile shower units.”

Dense smoke hovers over the camp during the 2012 Pole Creek Fire in Sisters, Ore. (above). The sky itself seems to be burning at the 2009 Station Fire north of Los Angeles (right). Both photos courtesy of S & K Transport LLC, an NMSCA member company based in Darby, Mont.

Clockwise from top: The kitchen setup of Big Sky Mobile Catering, an NMSCA member which was stationed at the Chiwaukum Creek Fire in Leavenworth, Wash., in August 2014; Big Sky’s setup included, left to right, a drink trailer, kitchen trailer, refrigerator/freezer trailer, and dry storage. S & K Transport was on the scene of the 2013 Elk Fire in Pine, Idaho, where the flames could be seen from camp. A sample camp menu item from Scofield Catering is pork chops on the grill.

Clockwise from below left: Scofield Catering grill and ovens; Scofield Catering’s kitchen equipment; Scofield Catering’s beverage station; a sample hearty meal from North Slope Catering; Big Sky Mobile Catering’s salad bar tent.

In the Field

Members of the NMSCA share anecdotes about what really happens when they’re out on the job.

Steve Nelson, Big Sky Mobile
Catering, Missoula, Mont.

A fire camp is like an instant small town or tent city. There are rules to obey, streets (paths, really) laid out and designated areas—food, showers, latrines, etc.

In this line of work, danger is always present, but rarely imminent. In 1988, in Yellowstone, a fire shifted direction and was headed our way. We were told to get out and leave everything behind. Then the fire missed us. We came back to camp a few hours later, and the kitchen was still standing. So we served dinner.

Bryan Scofield, Scofield
Catering and Management, Inc., Ventura, Calif.

A fire camp is run like a military operation. There’s a command structure, and even the caterers have to fit within that structure. Setup takes about two hours, and it begins as soon as we get to the camp, regardless of the time, day or night.

The firefighters and our people, too, are well paid, and they get to save almost everything they make. There’s no place to spend any money in the camp, and there’s no time for even a card game.

We try to make our food service as tempting and attractive as possible. We use high-grade cuts of meat and interesting recipes, such as a 14-ounce French pork chop in apple brandy sauce. You could take a meal like this and put it on fine china. But there are no linen doilies in camp.

Tom Stewart, Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering, Inc., Redmond, Ore.

We bring in two 100 kW generators to make our own electricity. Either one alone could power our operation, but having two makes us more efficient. We once had one breakdown when we were in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. We shifted over to the one that was working, and within eight hours we brought in a replacement for the one that failed. Our philosophy is that we’re not making any money when we’re “broke down.”

From Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering, an NMSCA member based in Redmond, Ore., a camp in Trego, Mont., at dusk (top left) and a cook preparing steaks on the grill (top right). Above, an aerial view of a campsite, courtesy of Scofield Catering.

Counter-clockwise from top: From North Slope Catering, a view of kitchen trailers and dining tents; a protein-heavy meal to nourish firefighters; and first-responders wait in line for window service. Beyond Big Sky Mobile Catering’s salad bar tent and the U.S. flag, heavy smoke fills the sky during the Beaver Creek Fire in Hailey, Idaho, in August 2013.

About the Author

Alan Richman (arkr@comcast.net), former editor/associate publisher of WholeFoods Magazine, is a New Jersey-based freelance writer focusing on food and nutrition.