Friday, March 2, 2012

gimme shelter

When I first started fighting fire, it was rare to see a tent at a fire camp, unless it was a wall tent for Finance or Logistics. We were issued a piece of plastic sheeting called visqueen and parachute cord to string it up. If you were lucky, whoever had cut the visqueen didn't short you any.

In those days, hooch building was an art. With a couple of fire tools, you could have yourself fine accommodations. I built one on a fire in Colorado that boasted a vestibule and a door made out of a plastic garbage bag. One night a camp minion appeared, making the rounds. "Just wanted to let you know there's a flood warning tonight," he said, indicating the torrential rain currently falling and the stream we were camped next to. It rained so much that we couldn't get into the fire the next day, but I stayed warm and dry in my hooch.

On the hotshot crew, we slept under a large yellow tarp, all of us. Unless you've slept under a tarp with 19 other people, it's hard to imagine the horror. Several snorers situated themselves throughout the area. There was always an early morning plastic bag rattler. When it rained, people on the outside got soaked. Being in the middle during a downpour wasn't much better, due to the need to sit up and poke the tarp to empty the water-filled bulges, also known as elephant butts. One morning our crew boss approached, pleased with himself. "I bought us tents!" he announced. Initially we were happy until we realized that he had bought two-person tents. Since we were all pretty sick of each other at that point, the last thing we wanted was to sleep even closer together.

These days, large fire camps resemble huge tent farms. Oddly, some crews pitch their tents so close together they might as well be sleeping under the old yellow tarp. Some of the tents that show up here tend to be on the cheap side. A variety popular in the 90s, the "Sixty Second Tent", was named so because, with poles already attached, it could be pitched in a minute. Sadly, they were so light that with a strong wind they sometimes came to a bad end.  The camp was often treated to the sight of several Sixty Second Tents rolling across a field like tumbleweeds, crews in hot pursuit.

The only hooch building that goes on these days is on remote fires, and even then, most people tote bivy sacks and tarps instead of visqueen and parachute cord. We all stay a little drier now. But give me some plastic and a couple shovels. I'm sure I still have the touch.


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