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Dozens of tents were staked in the dried weeds of a cow pasture outside Kremmling at Silver Creek fire camp in September 2018. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

KREMMLING — Dozens of empty tents staked on dried-up, end-of-summer grass rustled in a wind-whipped cow pasture north of town.

Fire camp was nearly deserted, as the hundreds of crew members working to contain the Silver Creek wildfire had been gone since just after breakfast, fueled by fried eggs, sausage and potatoes. In the distance, about 5 miles away, smoke tinted orange from the fire’s glow rose from the mountains of Grand and Routt counties.

Inside a trailer at camp, a group of women tapped keyboards, printed invoices and tallied the day’s expenses.

Nine weeks since the fire began, after scorching 12,000 acres, the running total stood at $15.3 million.

The fire at Silver Creek began in July, then smoldered, then flared again in late summer. Near the end of September, there were about 500 people living at a fire camp outside of Kremmling. The fire’s cost reached an estimated $25 million. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The fire sparked by lightning that flashed, smoldered and then flared again from July through September, prompting the evacuation of 200 homes and growing to 20,000 acres, would end up costing an estimated $25 million. That’s a combination of mostly federal money, since the fire broke out on federal land and burned mostly U.S. Forest Service acreage, plus state and county funds.

The drought-ravaged summer of 2018 was an expensive one for firefighting, with costs reaching an estimated $130 million for 18 fires, according to documents received by The Colorado Sun through a public records request to the state Division of Fire Protection and Control. Of that, the state’s share is more than $40 million.

That’s six times more than Colorado spent on fighting wildfires in 2017 and two and a half times what it spent in 2016. Ten fires last year cost just more than $10 million combined.

Details about how federal dollars were spent at Silver Creek and other forest fires were not available because the federal agency has not responded to a public information request from the Sun filed months ago.

Still, an up-close view of one fire camp provided a snapshot of the multimillion-dollar business of fighting fires, a massive industrial complex that extends beyond fire crews to private helicopter and airplane pilots on contract, catering companies, suppliers of portable toilets and mobile Internet providers.

At Silver Creek, the crew in charge of tabulating expenses had the most detailed spending data, in live time. The costs included:   

  • $12,000-$42,000 per day for catering, provided by an outfit from Missoula, Montana, that included a tractor-trailer rig with mess-hall tents and picnic tables
  • $3,000 daily for the shower company that rolled in from California and unhitched a pair of men’s and women’s trailers
  • $40 a day for each portable toilet, of which there were 38, for a total of $1,520 daily
  • $1,400 for the hand-washing station
  • $350 per day for the mobile satellite truck
  • $45 to $50 per hour on average for every crew member, with each allowed to work up to 16 hours out of every 24. There were nearly 500 crew members and camp staff at the height of the fire, so that’s a daily payroll potential of hundreds of thousands of dollars

Everything costs money, including the wood chips scattered in the parking lot area of the pasture to keep down the dust. Fighting the fire by air — with an airtanker, fixed-wing plane and helicopters of various sizes — was among the highest expenses, at times totaling more than $100,000 per day.

National contractors are dispatched by an interagency coordination center in Boise, Idaho, that knows their location and how fast they can get to a fire camp. Contracts, often for multiple years, require contractors to arrive on site within a day or two, and until then, local fire officials typically use nearby businesses. They order dozens of burgers from a fast-food joint or ask a local cafe to cater breakfast.

An airplane battles the Silver Creek fire near Kremmling in September. (Handout)

Much of the crew at Silver Creek, along with the caterer and other service companies, traveled from out of state because Colorado was strapped at the peak of the busiest fire season in recent years, said Caley Fisher, a public information officer with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Stephen Nelson, owner of the 34-year-old Big Sky Mobile Catering in Montana, was surprised by the late call for the Silver Creek fire. Usually his teams are wrapping up the fire season by then. But he was ready. He got his crew rolling.

“We were ready, but it certainly was a surprise. Then it turned out to be a pretty big fire,” Nelson said.

Once the catering team is on the road, they call food providers and order thousands of pounds of food. They call suppliers like Shamrock or Sysco or US Foods and place orders for delivery to, usually, a remote location in the woods, far from any big cities.

“It’s a pretty dynamic thing that goes on. And once we get called, we add to the complexity by calling food vendors,” Nelson said.

The portable toilets at Silver Creek fire camp outside of Kremmling in September cost $40 a piece, per day. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Nelson typically orders enough food for three days, which can be a risk. Sometimes they run dangerously low.

From 2010 through 2014, the Forest Service paid 18 mobile food providers more than $188 million to feed firefighters three meals a day. Each of those trailer-hauling, food-prepping contractors were dispatched about four times a year for wildfire duty that lasted anywhere from one to 22 days.

Big Sky Mobile Catering in late 2014 struck a deal — worth $405,000 a year — with the Forest Service for 2015-19. It’s a one-year agreement, but the company can renew for four more years if the Forest Service allows. Big Sky has signed about 32 federal contracts since it formed in the late 1980s.

The company has four trailers, and each is staffed with 15 to 20 workers who can serve as many as 1,500 firefighters three meals a day. The company can mobilize a caravan of trailers for cooking, food prep, refrigerated storage, sack lunch prep, dry good storage and hand-washing within 12 hours.

Big Sky Mobile has four teams that spread across the West every fire season. Hot and cold breakfasts run $14.70 to $22.86 a person, sack lunches cost $27.67 and hot dinners go for $26.68. Coffee, cold drinks, snacks, refrigerated storage space and additional tents for dining add more costs.

A catering outfit from Missoula, Montana, provided three meals a day for hundreds of fire crew at Silver Creek fire camp near Kremmling. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

It’s pricey, not unlike catering a wedding buffet. But caterers like Big Sky Mobile — there are about 20 of them out there that serve firefighters in the field — take risks when they bid on that duty. They build trailers with industrial kitchens and outfit trailers for storage and food prep. They hire workers to be ready to roll on a moment’s notice. And then they bid on contracts hoping they are pricing their services competitively.

That’s easier to do when fire seasons get more intense — they know the work will come. But it’s not always that way. A series of late spring snowstorms, for example, can suppress not only fire danger, but livelihoods in the swelling wildfire industry.

“Yeah, fire seasons have gotten more intense, but it wasn’t very long ago — not even five years — that we got a contract and we built another kitchen for a lot of money and we were all ready to go and that year we had one fire,” Nelson said. “There’s no money involved in not having fires.

“You better have a good banker and make sure after a good year you hang on to your money for another year in case you don’t do as well.”

Which agency pays for a fire — the feds, the state or the county — depends on where the flames start and spread. While it’s roaring, but mostly after it’s died out, officials from each agency hash out a cost-sharing agreement on a fire-by-fire basis. Acreage is a factor, but not the only one.

At Silver Creek, the blaze began on federal land but then spread to private land in Grand and Routt counties. Since the U.S. Forest Service failed to contain the fire before it spread to private land, negotiations included discussion on whether the federal government should pay for more than just the costs incurred on federal land. The final bills aren’t in, but the state and county are on the hook for much of the costs incurred on private land.

When a fire breaks out on private land, the county can request assistance from the state — aviation, ground equipment, and technical assistance, usually in the form of a fire management officer, the state’s Fisher said.

Colorado created an emergency fire fund a few years ago that is like an insurance pool for the counties that opt to participate. About half of the state’s counties pay in and can use the funds for local fires. When local funds are depleted, a county can ask the governor for an executive order that allows spending from the state’s disaster emergency fund.

Of the 18 fires in Colorado during the 2018 season, the only one more expensive than Silver Creek was Spring Creek. That fire cost an estimated $32 million, of which $25.5 million was billed to the state. Spring Creek fire, started by a campfire that wasn’t extinguished, scorched more than 100,000 acres and 200 homes in south-central Colorado near La Veta.

The men’s and women’s shower trailers cost about $3,000 per day. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Each fire has a designated officer in charge of contracts to negotiate with local businesses to buy portable toilets, hand-washing stations and drivers who can take people and supplies from camp to the fire line. At Silver Creek, the camp used a local electrician to hook yurts to generator power, said Matt O’Leary, logistics branch chief with the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

Bigger items that take more coordination — including aviation and catering — are done by national contract. When a fire camp has more than 150 people for longer than 72 hours, regulations require hiring a caterer with a national contract, for example.

“There has to be a lot of coordination at a strategic level to be able to support all of these fires,” said O’Leary, who was deployed to fires for more than 90 days this summer, all in Colorado. “It was a very busy fire season in Colorado, one of the busiest we’ve seen.”

The Silver Creek fire rages in September. (Handout)

Fire camp looks like a military base, complete with beige yurts, mess halls and medical tents.

The supply tents on one end of Silver Creek camp, in an area they called “Walmart,” had everything from sunscreen and lip balm to five-gallon jugs of water and fire pants. Many of the supplies are brought in from the federal cache — 16 warehouses throughout the country, including one in Lakewood. The warehouses stock hoses, tools, weather stations and protective clothing.

Government and private vehicles were required to check in for inspection as they entered so there was a record of every vehicle’s condition upon arrival, for reference later in the event of a claim for a broken windshield or a tire punctured by sagebrush, said Steve Ellis, southwest district chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Every item, down to the water jugs and bandages, is logged and expensed. Every hour of work is recorded on a timesheet and tracked at the appropriate trailer. Paramedics inside the medical tent — who mostly give out sunscreen and foot powder, but also deal with bigger issues including a recent case of wasp stings on a man’s genitals — track all of their procedures and amounts of dispensed medicine.

A calorie-packed sack lunch for firefighters and other crew at the Silver Creek camp was part of a $12,000-per-day catering service. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Breakfast was served from 5-9 a.m., along with high-calorie sack lunches of sandwiches, cans of tuna, candy bars and whole fruit. Dinner was 6:30-10 p.m. and included a salad bar inside the chow tent, and typically a hot meal of ribs, chicken or steak. A fire crew tip: bring a thermal mug of hot coffee to your tent before bed to avoid having to trek across camp for a sip in the morning.

The crew, after spending the day in smoke, soot and dust, can check in at the shower trailer and wash up as often as they desire.

At the Silver Creek fire, those facilities were operated by El Dorado Shower and Water, from Placerville, California.

The company has bid on almost 100 contracts with the U.S. Forest Service since 1989, hauling fresh water and shower trailers to fiery locations in Western states. Each of the operation’s five shower-equipped trailers can get as much as $327,636 a month — or $78,862 a week — for Type 1 incidents that typically involve more than 1,000 firefighters and support. For Type 2 fires with closer to 500 personnel at the base unit, El Dorado charges $227,827.50 a month — or $54,845.70 a week.

A company with a national contract to provide showers to firefighters traveled to the Silver Creek fire near Kremmling from California. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The company hauls the 48-foot trailers, at $68 to $85 a mile, across the West. Each can accommodate 600 to 700 firefighters a day. The company also provides propane and drinking water and hauls away gray water. This season, the team worked four big fires and one smaller fire, which was Silver Creek. The company, owned by Roger Cunnington, is one of about 40 shower providers that work with the U.S. Forest Service.

“There aren’t any of us in the shower business who have gotten rich,” he said. “Most of us have been doing it a long time because we provide a good service for a good price. We make it so the firefighters can get up and go work the next day.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...