Behind the lines Busy season taxes those working at firefighter

Saturday, July 27, 2002

BOISE, Idaho -- Chuck Frady spends more time on the phone than an operator at the Home Shopping Network. But instead of asking about jewelry or clothes, his latest caller is in the market for a shower and a caterer -- the sooner the better.

"I'll see what I can do," Frady assures her, "but I'm not going to promise you anything."

As soon as he hangs up, another line buzzes. Different caller, same request. And from Frady, a similar response: "Chances are slim."

A cross between 911 dispatcher and store clerk, Frady is one of about 50 people who man the phones at the National Interagency Coordination Center, the logistical support hub for the nation's wildland firefighting efforts.

Need fresh crews? Helicopters? Radios? Showers? Caterers? This is the place to call.

And these days, the phones are ringing nonstop.

A drought-fueled fire season that got off to a fast and ferocious start has strained resources and left states battling for crews and supplies. With the season only half over, the national center last week called on the military for 650 soldiers to beef up its firefighting corps.

The coordination center is one of several operations housed at the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center. There is also a radio stockpile, smokejumpers base and one of 11 nationwide warehouses that distribute equipment and supplies to fight fires.

Other than the fire line itself, there may be no place where the stress on resources is more evident.

Inside the radio unit, shelves usually stacked with equipment stand bare. Nearly 140 communications systems -- boxes of handheld radios, repeaters and other supplies -- have been dispatched to fires this year. Communications chief Stephen Jenkins expects demand to surpass that of the 2000 season, when a record 180 systems were sent out.

"We're going to get to a point where the fire directors are going to have to make decisions on: 'Do we put people and equipment here or do we put people and equipment here?"' Jenkins said. "You get to a point where you don't have any more pumps or sleeping bags or radios."

'Everybody wants us'

At the equipment warehouse, two guys hose down tents just back from one fire while a group of women quickly repackage sleeping bags and pack smokejumper supplies to get ready for the next blaze.

Eric Walker and Danny Arnold were among the few firefighters at the local smokejumpers base, home to 80 members of the elite unit that parachutes into blazes as part of the initial attack.

"We've got planes flying everywhere," Walker said. "Everybody wants us, and no one's available."

Arnold noted that some of his colleagues already had completed 15 jumps this season. That is usually the average for an entire year.

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