Behind the scenes at a fire camp kitchen

El Cariso Hotshots
El Cariso Hotshots, around 1972

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes as meals are being prepared by the catering services that provide food for firefighters on large wildland fires?

A journalist from the southern United States drove to Oregon in 2019 to embed with one of the 16 companies that run 29 federally contracted mobile food-service units specializing in fire-camp cuisine. He was hoping to get an inside look at what it was like to work at fire camp.

Jeff Winkler had previous experience working in “slop joints, shopping-center fusion, hippie shacks, and fine dining.” His current occupation, according to The Atlantic which published his long-form article about his adventure, is working as a trash collector back in the South.

During his 19 days feeding firefighters on the South Fire west of Red Bluff in Northern California, Mr. Winkler started in “freight” unloading deliveries from the Sysco semi that dropped off supplies, churning out hundreds of sack lunches assembly-line-style in the semi reefer, deep cleaning, and odd jobs. He described it as “soul-suckingly monotonous”, but after two days he moved up to the kitchen to work for Ruby, the head cook. On his 18th day he found himself in the head cook position.

Here are some excerpts:

Ruby and her second-in-command, Josie, a petite collegiate blonde not a day over 22, were scrambling. For Josie, it was literal. She was quietly pouring bags of yellow liquid egg into a tilt skillet and stirring the soup into a solid using a three-foot-long stainless-steel paddle.

Tilt Skillet
Tilt Skillet

The ovens, I was told, were on the fritz, so Ruby had me drop bacon into the deep fryers.

It didn’t take me long to understand that we were cooking stomach anchors, not taste-bud tinglers. Instead of foie gras and bordelaise, our crew made large batches of heavy sustenance: things such as well-done chicken, powdered potatoes, instant gravy. Canned veggies were heated and dressed in brown sugar and spices. The liquid for Josie’s scrambled eggs came in 20-pound bags, and deep-frying bacon was an hour-long process. This was high-volume catering. The situation, and the contract, demanded it.

The Overhead Boomers were always the first to eat. Their impatience when waiting for us to open for service is a running joke among disaster catering crews. They also ate like picky children: “Nah, I don’t want no vegetables.” Almost all of the young bright-eyed Cs [California Conservation Corps] accepted their plates and ate like college freshmen. We got to know who the vegetarians were, and had their plates ready in advance.

Before the day-13 dinner rush, we’d made the steaks and shipped them out to spike camp but, for whatever reason, had forgotten to package up an entire batch. I found the deep-sixed pan of cooked steaks cooling in one of the fritzed ovens just a little after dinner service had started.

Check out the entire article at The Atlantic.

South Fire California
Spike Camp on the South Fire, September 12, 2019. InciWeb.
South Fire California
South Fire, September 12, 2019. Inciweb.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

34 thoughts on “Behind the scenes at a fire camp kitchen”

  1. Let’s see now. After WWII ratios, we had “gut bags” that were dropped frozen into hot water then served, and were such a “step up” from “Rats,” that few complained. Then the dreaded MREs, where everything looked like “it had already been eaten at least once.” So, when it came to semi-fresh food, we thought we had died and gone to Heaven, and if it came with a shower, we really knew we were in “fire camp Heaven.” So, pass th,e eggs & bacon with a couple of steaks on the side,please, and shut up!!

    1. Ted you should crawl back under that rock. Lets go back to brush hooks, no work to rest guidelines, hazing, 1 radio to a crew….Why not push for healthy fresh food and taking care of our people. Its called progress and our people work in terrible conditions with limited info on how bad it really is for our health. Eating fresh food and somewhat healthy food is a small step in combatting some of that. I sure hope my brothers and sisters in the future are better taken care if than I have been. I certainly wouldn’t tell them to shut up. Take a minute before you hit the send button next time.

  2. My first ever breakfast burrito was at the Scaeface Fire camp, circa 1977. It was tasty and filling. I was amazed then and still am as to how mess crews can do so much with so little.

    1. In his book FIRE CREW
      author Ben Walters describes his first meals at a fire camp with a caterer.

      Firefighters generally get fed pretty well, as you might imagine. They need good fuel and lots of it to keep up energy levels on those workdays that can easily be in excess of sixteen hours. Just to give you an idea, the standard for a 154-pound firefighter doing heavy work is about 4,400 calories a day, including 490 to 700 grams of carbohydrate per day, and there’s not quite 50 grams in a cup of beans.
      One of my favorite firefighter meal memories comes from a Type 2 fire near Silver City, New Mexico.
      Meals catered in fire camps are served up buffet style. On big project fires, such as this one, the buffet is on or near a van-type semi-trailer run by the contract caterer. The catering crew worked inside the trailer, which was custom-outfitted as a mobile kitchen. Inside there it looked damn hot, too, and those people were working their asses off in 100-degree-plus temperatures – these mobile kitchen units typically are equipped with four or five commercial-size gas grills and all the other equipment necessary to feed 400 or 800 firefighters.
      I first picked up my white plastic utensils, napkins, and paper plate. I climbed the four stairs to the plank that ran along the distance of the serving windows on the side of the kitchen. I was expecting some mystery meat affair like the too-common sack lunch sandwich meat, or something that was like the lunch line back at junior high. What I saw just about blew my mind.By then I had eaten in a couple of fine restaurants around the country, so I knew what I was looking at. The meat I saw was indeed mystery meat in a way – a total mystery that they had prime rib, steaming and barely off the roaster, right out here in the middle of nowhere. That was window number one in the chow line. The question they asked me – “Do you want more than one piece?” – damn near made me speechless. “I’ll have two, please,” I answered.
      I still remember how the salt and pepper and spice rub they’d put on it looked, and how the little sample bite tasted while I was in line for station number two. Perfect medium to medium-rare, and they offered both creamy and real grated horseradish sauce along with au jus. I had all three. My plate already weighed close to two pounds, maybe more.
      Potatoes? Well yes, meat must be accompanied by potatoes, especially in fire camp. A giant baked potato in foil landed on my plate, and the starchy smell in the steam went straight to my stomach. I dressed it with butter, lots of real sour cream, real crumbled bacon, and grated cheddar cheese.
      You could then choose an ear of corn on the cob, or cheesy broccoli. I had both. Corn on the cob is pure summertime, and in a fire camp it’s like a dream. Next in the chow line was a tossed garden salad – all we had to do was choose which dressing packets we wanted.
      This caterer also offered a selection of desserts. The dessert table was set off to the side of the trailer and was loaded with slices of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, very recently baked chocolate chip cookies, and even peach and apple cobbler.
      I ate my fill that first night because I thought I deserved it after a day hiking and working in that godawful heat. I topped off the meal with two or three plastic cups full of ice cold milk, and then a hot cup of coffee.

  3. In California CAL FIRE uses mobile kitchens staffed by inmate fire crews. No profit margin so the food is plentiful, and the steaks come more often. The kitchens get deployed not just on fires but other disasters including riots, floods and earthquakes. In the 97-98 winter floods in as a fire crew captain I had to supervise this crew of inmates. The stress was always present to get the meal out hot, on time and enough for all. As the rain fell, we woke each day at 0200 hrs. to begin the crush of making a breakfast. Cold, wet, tired working in a parking lot surrounded by refrigerator trucks, generators, prep trailers, potable water trucks gray water bladders, dumpsters, forklifts and tent for the crew to sleep in, logistics the military would envy. Every day I wished I was out with my fire crew sandbagging on the top of levees in a driving rainstorm, it would have been easier.

    1. Robert mentioned “logistics the military would envy.”
      In 1994 I worked for a couple summer months in Montana for OK Cascade, and we were feeding several hundred guys from Fort Hood in Texas. The military troops had been ordered up by NIFC. The IMT we were working with had to send a couple crews back home because they were caught ratholing food in their crew tents in grizzly country. Meanwhile, though, at our second or third camp, the military troops had brought their own field kitchen from Texas, and after 3 days they sent their military kitchen unit home because the contracted kitchen caterers were putting them to shame.

  4. Good article. Stewart’s Catering was one of my favorites. Fire camp catering has come a long way since my first project fire on the Wenatchee in 1970. The tables were made of 2 x 4s and plywood. They were tall, no seats, so you stood up to eat. We had to be on the line early so we ate breakfast in the cold and dark with our headlamps and coats on. The food was the “Gut bags “, fish nets containing individual meals all heated together in garbage cans full of boiling water. Some packets of food always broke in the boiling water so all the other packets were sticky.
    My favorite meals though were in Alaska. You get MREs the first three days then fresh food boxes are delivered to camp. You cook your own meals on a Coleman stove and fire. A stew pot, coffee pot, aluminum foil and cut your own stick to roast your steak over the fire. The natives are smart, they have fishing line and hooks in their pockets and eat Grayling. Almost all of the small streams and rivers up there have Grayling in them.
    I must be a rare breed because I never had a C-rat, fish net , MRE, or catered meal that I didn’t like.

  5. Thanks I enjoyed reading this article and I am kind of a little shocked that the quality for the firefighters isn’t always available. Feeding 300 or more people at a time is definitely an art. And realizing that there is a lack of refrigeration or ovens that workAnd people to run the work is mind-boggling. Food prepping and cooking add a kitchen sometime away probably isn’t always an option when the food has to be there and ready for hungry people. And ordering government rations you don’t always get what you want. Very challenging indeed from the viewpoint of a cook.

  6. A couple of things strike me as unusual in the first picture. The red hatted bunch is obviously a Forest Service Hotshot Crew. I can tell by the yellow Forest Service sticker on the front of the hard hats, the hard hats were manufactured by Bullard which were available, to my kn0wledge, from the 1960s to the early 1970, and were usually worn by hotshots. Orange fireshirts were worn into the early 1970s at the latest and were replaced by Yellow “Nomex” fire shirts. In those days, before ICS, kitchen crews fell under the jurisdiction of Service Chiefs and frequently consisted of Forest Service employees. Cooks were Hotshot crew cooks from Hotshot crews assigned to a particular fire. Service Chiefs’s skills and commitment to the troops made the difference between difference between good and bad chow. For example, I noticed that if green grapes were served, the meals were always outstanding. I soon found out that if there were green grapes, “Selmo Lewis, my District Ranger, was the Service Chief. I asked him one day, “Why the green grapes?” He said, “They are my signature. Every great craftsman has his own signature.” I think T-Bone steaks, made to order, were another of his signatures. After looking at the chow and the crew, it appears to me the photo was taken befor the implementation of ICS if not earlier. Am I correct? If the meals are poor, perhaps an old fashioned Service Chief should be assigned to large fires to at least manage messing, and special training should be established to turn out great and committed Service Chiefs.

    1. Bob, the crew is the El Cariso Hotshots. The photo was definitely taken between 1970 and 1972, most likely 1971 or 1972. As you said, this was around the time we transitioned to yellow fire shirts on the Cleveland National Forest. Yes, they wore aluminum hard hats. In recent decades after the adoption of the Incident Command System, the Food Unit Leader, working for the Logistics Section Chief, supervises the caterer, guided by the training they have received and a very detailed contract with dozens, if not hundreds, of specifications. A highly skilled Food Unit Leader is worth their weight in gold. The quality and nutrition of the food has improved substantially over the last 50 years.

      The catering personnel working very, very long hours, according to the article, are under appreciated and deserve a lot of credit.

  7. Those old little 4 seater yellow trimmed tables from the cache, that brings back memories along with the orange fire shirts and aluminum Bullards.

    We’ve come along way, this year was exceptionally challenging for feeding with the COVID for logistics, the caterers, MKUs with inmate crews as well as the smaller Type 3 incidents.

    I have to agree with Rob, the MKUs with the inmate crews do a pretty good job. The inmates did a pretty good job back in the day with the old Sonoma kitchens. First fire camp I ate in was the Vista Fire on the CA-BDF in 72′ with a Sonoma kitchen, last time was in 87′.

    Nice to see Logistics get some focus here.

  8. My first firecamp meal was in ’61, and, on the Sequoia NF, the Camp was run by our Forest Engineers. They did a superb job of it. In the early 60s, we often saw the inmate crews in the kitchen, as well as on the line.

  9. You have all done good job telling it the way it is. My first fire was 1970 out of Ukiah Oregon and my last one was at Chelan Washington 2017. I told others that I could hardly wait for fire season because I missed the good food in a fire camp. By the way the green grapes were always good. They helped to keep things on the move.

    1. Grapes in fire camp stir memories of the legendary Mt. Baldy Angeles DR Anselmo Lewis. The article on fire camp food has certainly pushed a lot of our buttons. If I remember right contract kitchens originated in So Cal
      as an out growth of the movie caterers. Connie Conrad on the Angeles helped get the ball rolling. I recall some really good fire camp meals. A favorite caterer was an outfit out of Kanab Utah. Always glad to see them pull into camp.

  10. Working your men hard for long hours, you can short them on grub or you can short them on real down-time. But if you short them on both, it’s gonna cost you.

  11. Despite all the nostalgia which I appreciate, most of the food we feed Forestry Technicians is highly processed, low quality carb heavy. It is inadequate and shows the lack of care for the work they do. It is not unusual for folks on handcrews to lose 10 pounds on a roll.

    Is there any athlete of any high performance that would eat Skittles and Uncrustables to fuel training or a competition?

    I seem plenty of rotting greens in the salad bar, uncooked eggs served, and mystery food served. It’s a ritual not to eat the Roast Beef as several on crew each time would be sick. At its best, it’s good but more often than not it is pulled from a Sysco box and served to those who are “heroes” and “firefighters” who are barely making minimum wage in some cases. This year FS forestry technicians in Washington State will not make state minimum wage at GS-3 level.

    After all that though, god bless those catering workers. Their life and work is not easy and I would pick the fire line over the their work most days.

    I would use my given name but I fear that would affect my work.

    1. Spot on. All this nostalgia is clouded.

      I remember lunch bags that were 6 Oreos, 2 snickers, an apple, and two smashed uncrustables. Usually heated to a nice 95 degrees after a day working in the sun. You could tell they were trying to meet the calorie requirements in the contracts as cheaply as possible.

    2. “Is there any athlete of any high performance that would eat Skittles and Uncrustables to fuel training or a competition?”

      I would say it’s fairly common in the endurance world, yeah. Look at the aid stations at ultras.

      Maybe not skittles and uncrustables specifically, but you see a lot of Snickers and Paydays and flat Coca-Cola, and certainly homemade pb&j and chocolate chip cookies.

      1. Fair Point.

        But that is one race day, we have to eat the processed sugar filled low quality high fructose corn syrup everyday on assignment. Also I would assert that our work has much more of a strength component compared to running an ultra. Also we need to recover to do the same thing the next day.

        The food we give Forestry Technicians is so far from where it needs to be.

  12. In over 20 years (mostly as overhead) on fires and other incidents all over the country, here’s a few things I’ve learned.
    A good FUDL (Food Unit Leader) makes all the difference in the world.
    State Inmate Kitchens are usually an order of magnitude better than 75% of the contractors.
    Not all contract kitchen units are the same, even from season to season.
    Supply has MRE’s, and sometimes they beat what the chow trailer has to offer.
    If ICP is near a town with restaurants or even a Taco Wagon, there is a back up, use it.
    I’ll never eat another P.O.S sack lunch ever again. Although Cal Fire lunches are pretty good.
    The kitchen crews and camp crews are the hardest working people in camp.
    Regardless of whether you punch in line, or punch on a keyboard in camp, you’re gonna get the same meal, which really doesn’t meet the needs of either group. Especially with COVID this last season. (Yeah, yeah, I know there are minimum protien and carb requirements written into the contracts, I’m not talking quantity here, I’m talking QUALITY.)
    I can’t find the dates but back in the early part of this century I was on the Fish Creek Fire outside Missoula when a team of nutritionists, dieticians and fire folks came and spent time with us looking at how we were fed, asked a whole lot of questions, wrote a lot of notes and then left. After that nothing changed. Too Bad, So Sad.

  13. As a currently employed forestry tech with 7 seasons on a hotshot crew I can say that anything beats a rat…although food at an icp or a bucket at spike might not be the best compared to whatever you might personally prefer, I can tell you – we do not give a darn after a long shift or a few long shifts and it boosts morale to have this food over a mre or whatever we have in the buggies.
    So thanks to those folks who feed us every season and to the pilots and drivers who help deliver us this food. We appreciate it.

  14. PS – about covid and the 2020 season with regards to fire camp food –
    We thought we’d be eating mre’s all season long…we’re told to be prepared for that, so we all buy supplemental food.
    So thanks again to the caterers, pilots and drivers because that would’ve truly sucked! Btw…we are prepping ourselves for another season of this.

  15. All crews eat better when they can shop and cook for themselves. They can buy fresh fruit, vegetables and decent lunch meat and supplementals. Also the coffee is way better which makes for a happy group. A lot of crews learned how easy it is due to COVID this year and everyone saw the beauty in staying out of fire camp all together. When the shifts get busy and long unfortunately the self sufficiency thing becomes a burden in logistics and length of day. It is an eye opening difference when the crew is fed well and getting great rest out of camp. Hopefully we carry the limited fire camp exposure forward where we can avoid the handrail and salad tongs forever.

  16. The entire Atlantic article was entertaining and worth the read. I remember thinking when I was young and first starting out on project fires many years ago how much like a carnival fire camp was. There was the roadies who put up and tore down. And all the other sections that supported the show like the carnival band, the animal handlers, the food vendors, the rides, and the main attractions, who in my mind I compared to the many jobs on a large fire. Jeff captures well the on-the-edge lifestyle of the catering crew. I had to laugh inside when he refers to the Overhead Boomers and Overfed. I did that in my 20’s and 30’s. Now I am one of them.

    1. Was kinda irked by the Overhead Boomers crack, since I’m not a Boomer, and don’t act like a picky jerk in the food line. However, looking at some of my fellow Camp Rats, I can see how they come up with this.

  17. Mariah that was excellent and I’m still laughing.
    I’ve worked with caterers feeding firefighters and I’ve eaten with IMT pals fed by caterers.
    Your note was spot on.

    There is indeed a H U G E wide range of difference from the one end of fire camp food to the other. The consistent thing, in my experience anyway, was the effectiveness of the IMT — from local to state to regional T2 to the national IMT operation — no matter the quality of the chow, they make order out of chaos … every time.

  18. There was a time, and not that long ago, before the “we want it all generation,” that we were more than happy just to have food, any kind of food, coming off the line. A couple of days without food was not uncommon. No showers either; we just picked the ticks off of each other at the end of the shift. We don’t share these things to show “how tough we were,” we share them in hopes that you’ll quit the bitching and be thankful for what you get.

    1. Once again Ted pushing for progress and change for our people is not bitching. No one wants a shower in a camp trailer. My crew went the entire year without using an indoor toilet due to Corona. We spiked all year, which was great because fire camp is a breeding ground for illness. We are talking about the health of or young men and women and if you want to perceive a push for positive change as “bitching” than that is your problem. Maybe we should also disregard the mental health issues in our profession too and tell people to stop “bitching”. No good change came from an attitude of be happy with what you get.

  19. Ah yes, fire camp food. Books could be written about it. In the old logging camps, the bull cook ran the camp, because if the men didn’t get good and plentiful food they wouldn’t produce. A little bit of a parallel with Fire Camps. My first experience with it was in 1976 on the Huntersville-Badoura fire in Minnesota. I don’t remember the specifics of the food, other than it was bad and caused major stomach distress. My last experience was in August, 2020 in Long Creek Oregon. It was a national caterer on a State of Oregon fire and it was wonderful food during the Covid protocols. Because of Covid, we couldn’t use our own kitchens run by correctional crews. Our Logistics Section and food unit leaders have made major improvements over my 25 year career with ODF, but the National caterers still provide a better product because they have more $$$ to work with. My only “bitch” about the Long Creek food is that there was too much of it! Everything was pre-served and packaged so everybody got the same amount of food. They tried to provide a lot of everything to everybody. And the amount of trash was at least double. But the quality and variety was excellent. I can only imagine what fire camp kitchens and food will be like in another 40 years. Maybe it will be individualized ordering by smartphone on your way back to camp; gluten free, vegan with plant based protein please, or full on traditional meat, potatoes, gravy and sugar please!

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