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Hosting heroes at Central Park

Firefighters turn local park into staging area for fire fight

Posted: September 1, 2009 10:58 p.m.
Updated: September 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

A fire crew from San Carlos, Ariz. plays dominos amid a sea of tents as they wait for their shift to begin at 6 p.m.

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Central Park in Saugus - known for cover-band concerts, dog-walking and soccer games - has been transformed into a military-style camp for crews to rest and recover between shifts on the fire line.

"We come in eat, hydrate, rest, take care of hygiene and we go back out on night operations," said Tony Adams, a 25-year veteran of the Compton Fire Department.

Fifty-three buildings were set up in Central Park to support thousands of firefighters battling the Station Fire along its northern front, said Dan Simpson, logistics section chief for the Station Fire and a member of the Golden Valley Fire Department.

"The idea behind the ICS (incident command center) is taken from the military," Simpson said.

Rows of portable toilets, showers and tents line Central Park. The camp has 10 administrative buildings where senior fire officials plan how and where to attack the fire, Simpson said.

Twice-daily briefings allow those senior fire officials to disseminate that information to ground crews out battling the blaze, he added.

But the Central Park camp is more than a mobile staging area for the fight against the Station Fire, it's home for more than 2,400 firefighters for days at a time.

"We have 2,400 firefighters to feed. We also need to make sure they have access to showers," Simpson said Tuesday afternoon. "All this boosts morale and makes their jobs easier."

But feeding, caring for and keeping that many firefighters in relative comfort is no easy task.

"We'll go through 900 pounds of chicken and 700 gallons of water at dinner alone," said Kirk Jensen, manager of Port-a-Pit food services. Tuesday night's meal included barbecue chicken, rice pilaf and scalloped potatoes, he said.

Port-a-Pit, a mobile food services company from Arizona, travels to wildfires across the country to keep fire crews fed so they can battle blazes like the Station Fire.

"If it wasn't for us, they would be eating MRE (meals ready to eat) and brown-bag lunches," said Josh Neth, assistant manager for Port-a-Pit.

"We feed each firefighter more than 13,000 calories a day to sustain them during the long days on the fire line," Neth said.
The camp also features 130 portable toilets.

"With 2,000 firefighters using the camp, we need to supply that many toilets so there aren't long lines," Simpson said. "Whatever these guys eat and drinks eventually comes out."

Firefighters return from the front line night operations glassy-eyed with black soot covering their faces.

The base has 18 showers that operate for 22 hours each day, allowing firefighters to clean off the grime they collect battling fires.

The showers close between noon and 2 p.m. for cleaning, according to Simpson.

"The firefighters are working in a hazardous environment with poison oak and smoke. Taking showers is key to keeping them healthy during fire operations," Simpson said.

What the fire camp won't do is leave an indelible mark on Central Park.

"We're recycling all of our trash," he said. "The city of Santa Clarita has extended itself to support our efforts. We should give them back their park the same way we found it."

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