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After a day on the fire line, there is little time for socializing as food, a shower, and sleep are the main objectives. Photo by Brittany Berrens.

Isabella spike camp is home away from home

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news Two Harbors, 55616
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

A sea of tents and trailers nestled in the woods just northwest of Isabella is what hundreds of firefighters battling the Pagami Creek fire have called home this past month.

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The Isabella spike camp on Mitawan Lake Road at the site of the former Environmental Learning Center was set up to house more than 300 firefighters from at least 25 states - some from as far away as California and New Mexico. Add in the 70 camp support staff members, and the place is housing more people than are permanent residents of the Isabella area.

Spike camps are commonly set up when fighting large wildfires. The term "spike" refers to their positions geographically near the fire line and away from a main command center, which is in Ely.

The tent city, set up five days before a visit last Thursday, looked as if it could be the site of a music festival. Groups of tents are set up for each hotshot firefighting crew. Makeshift rain tarps are constructed with clear plastic sheeting and rocks. Away from the tents are mobile showers, hand-washing stations and a giant trailer used for catering; it resembles an RV.

The camp looks anything but glamorous but is highly organized. Camp manager Dennis Brogger and his team of seven take care of everything from ordering supplies for the firefighters to making sure the food that's being served is giving firefighting crews the approximately 5,000 calories a day they need to have enough energy to fight a fire for hours on end.

Brogger, from Cohasset, has been a manager of disaster relief camps since 1986. He's worked on camps set up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and after hurricanes as well as at forest fire spike camps. He said other than the cool and rainy weather, everything has run smoothly at the Isabella camp. A lot of that is thanks to the help of his support staff, who he said were all fitting and working together "just like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."

Those pieces of a puzzle include contracted services. Everything in the camp is run by a different entity. The shower station is run by a company called Wildfire Hot Showers out of Billings, Mont. The hand-washing station is run by another company. The food is provided by Yellowstone Kelly's Catering, also based in Billings. Other companies handle garbage, toilets, and other facilities.

Temporary home

The Shasta Lake hotshot firefighting crew from northern California was just arriving at the camp Thursday afternoon. It is the ninth wildfire they have fought this year. It's also the largest. It took four days for the group to drive to Isabella, where temperatures were a little cooler than they expected. The firefighters stocked up on cold-weather gear.

"We probably single-handedly boosted the outdoor gear business up here," firefighter Josh Dereksen said. "This is a different world for most of our guys."

Clean, warm, and healthy

One of the top concerns for camp officials is to keep the firefighters healthy, especially in the rain and cold. The medical tent has been treating firefighters mostly for coughs and other cold symptoms coming from the weather more than from the smoke of the fire.

The hot showers are a popular spot after firefighters return to camp from a long day. Lee Christiansen with Wildfire Hot Showers is proud to offer the perk. "It's not for us, it's for them," he said. "You can see just the attitude change (in the firefighters) after they're done showering."

Christiansen said about 4,500 gallons of water are used every day for the showers, and said he hasn't run out of hot water yet. The showers are so warm and cozy that he suspected a few of the firefighters were sleeping in the shower building after seeing them leave one day with their pillows.

Not just firefighters

Though the firefighters are a majority of the population of this camp, dozens of camp crew members also are living there, making up the backbone of the city-like settlement and helping to fight the fire in their own way.

The Mingo Job Corps group has been in Isabella since Sunday. The group of 16- to 24-year-olds do anything that needs to be done around the camp. Most of their time has been spent setting up tents and other structures, but they've even spent time pulling spotted knapweed, an invasive plant, from the camp so firefighters don't carry seeds into the fire zone, which could spread the plant farther into the forest.

Members of the job corps group, based out of Missouri, aren't fans of the cold weather, either. They were huddled under a warming tent last Thursday afternoon on a short break. The crew wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and works until sundown. The work is hard and exhausting at the Isabella camp, but several crew members said they are happy to do the work, realizing the firefighters appreciate what the crew members do to keep the camp functioning.

Coming down

The Isabella spike camp was taken down this week as firefighters were being sent to smaller spike camps closer to the areas of the fire they were assigned to. Firefighters and crew members were given the last chance to have breakfast and a hot shower Wednesday morning before the camp got taken down.

The camp in Isabella was one of many spike camps firefighters have stayed in, but was by far the largest with the most amenities. More than 800 firefighters are working on the fire and are staying throughout the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in camps that are normally used by outdoor enthusiasts year-round.

Progress made

While the cool, damp conditions are not exactly ideal for camping in, they have helped firefighters get the Pagami Creek fire, which has burned 93,459 acres, more than 60 percent contained by mid-week. Warmer, drier conditions were expected for the end of the week, which could dry out fire fuels and create an increase in fire activity with more smoke.

Because fire crews have successfully contained more than half of the fire, many areas in the Superior National Forest are open for public use. Gabbro Lake and South Kawishiwi River and areas extending Sawbill within the BWCAW have reopened.

Late last week, campfire restrictions within the Superior National Forest and BWCAW were loosened by the U.S. Forest Service. Campfires, including charcoal fires, wood-burning camp stoves, and charcoal grills are allowed between 6 p.m. and midnight. In fee-for-use campgrounds, campfires and other fires are allowed at any time of day. Gas and propane camp stove use is allowed at any time of day. Weather conditions continue to change, which could prompt a change in the restrictions.

For the latest information on burning restrictions, visit the Superior National Forest website at www.fs.usda. gov/superior. To check closure areas and get updates on the fire, visit www.inciweb. org/incident/2534.

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