A cook, a camera and a fire camp
Photo credit and copyrights to Shane Collins & Gonzo Okanagan
INTO THE FURNACE
Saturday, July 10, 2021
I remember the day because it was the day of my brother’s wedding. It was 30+ degrees by 10:00 a.m.
I was washing my car when I saw the fire on Becker Mountain flare up. A tall, blue column of smoke was rising and within minutes, the fire had spread into a raging beast, threatening to devour the tinder dry forest.
We watched in disbelief at the speed in which the fire spread. Water bombers and helicopters attacked the fire all day. It was the first wildfire I ever photographed and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be my last. I had a hunch that this year would see a brutal fire season and I wasn’t wrong.
I had no idea at the time just how right I would be or the direction my life would take because of how bad the fires would inevitably become.
August 3, 2021
I was working in the kitchen of a summer camp when I was asked if I wanted to work in a fire camp, cooking for the firefighters. I didn’t ask about money or a schedule. I simply agreed. I was told they were desperate for workers and with the summer camp closing soon I would be in need of work. A few days later the summer camp wrapped up. I was hired over the phone and I was asked to head to Oliver and get to work.
I arrived with the back of my SUV laid out with a padded bed and a TULE’ up top on the racks to carry all my gear. As a lifelong photographer it is a habit to bring my camera with me. Driving through the Okanagan valley, the whole thing reminded me of traveling abroad. I had my bags packed and I was prepared to live out of my car. I had a long-board, some ball gloves and a baseball to help pass the time when I wouldn’t be working. I had books to read and my laptop to document kitchen life as the experience unfolded. I saw this opportunity as something that might be a once in a lifetime thing. Maybe it’ll happen every summer? I didn’t know and still don’t. Regardless, I figured I should bring my camera and my desire to document along with me.
Oliver is tucked away in the Southern pocket of BC, Canada. It’s a small town surrounded by a rolling desert with hills and cliffs, lakes and rivers, wild sage, scarab, pine forests, orchards and vineyards for as far as your eyes can take you. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The fires in Oliver and Osoyoos were so close to town and out of control it’s amazing these men and women were able to stop the fires at all.
As I pulled in to camp I saw hundreds of tents sitting in the dirt alongside the small airport of Oliver. I brought my tent as well, just in case sleeping in the car wasn’t as comfortable as I hoped. Checking in with security I’m directed to pull around a series of customized and converted semi trailers that acted as the showers, first aid and command centres for planning and logistics and of course, the kitchen.
Dusty and hot, the environment was harsh and uncomfortable. Flies were on me soon as I stepped out of my car. The sun beat down onto me with a rare intensity. I was greeted by a slim, young man named Jesse. He was one of a few who ran this whole set up. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. “You must be Shane.” He led me around, introducing me to Cleo, a young woman and O.G, a teddy bear of a man who waved a friendly hello as they wrapped sandwiches. “These two are the sandwich crew. They’ll wrap hundreds of them every day so the firefighters have them for lunch tomorrow.”
A young, handsome man rushes by with a broom in his hands. Jesse stops him. “Brandon, meet Shane.” He nods to me. “Call me Water, that’s what everyone else calls me.” I had never met anyone named Water before and I’ve never met anyone who wore a face tattoo so well, either.
I met Rob, a towering man in his 60’s who was banging pots and pans in an industrial sink. Stacks of cooking trays tower up beside him. He’s been on fire crews like this for a long time, he tells me.
There’s Jeff the chef, an experienced and fast moving chef who says a quick hello then passes me with a tray of chicken in his hands. We follow him into one of two converted semi trailers. “This is where we keep all our meat, condiments, fruits, milks and creams, soups, left over food, juice, deserts and a whole arsenal of what’s needed to feed over 300 people,” Jesse tells me. “I used to be one of these guys, fighting fires and I know how important good food is for morale. We try to keep the menu and the eating experience here of a high caliber. Most other camps don’t do that so you’re a part of a good crew here.”
My tour took me out of the cooler and back into the heat. I swatted a fly on my neck and came up with nothing other than me cussing. Damara, our breakfast chef, had just woken up from a nap and I shook her hand as she rubbed her eyes. “I start work around 2:30 a.m., it’s nice to meet you but you’ll have to excuse me, I need coffee.” She made her way to the mess tent as I was shown around.
We turn a corner and I am in one of the two kitchens. Stainless steel sinks, ovens, industrial stoves, steel countertops, drying racks and service counters up front are strategically crammed into such a small space. It’s not only impressive but also ripping hot inside. There’s no air conditioning. “Holy hell it’s hot in here.”
“This is the work and the reality on the ground.” Jesse stops and turns to me. “At one point it was 46 degrees. That’s like an oven outside and it was even hotter in here.”
I’m taken down to the Mess tents; a series of large, canvas tents that reminded me of that old TV show, M.A.S.H. I really did feel like I was walking around the barracks of an army camp.
“This is the mess tent. This will be your area. You’ll be in charge of keeping it stocked and cleaned.” Jesse starts pointing his finger around the tent. “There’s coffee over here, juice over here, there’s water coolers here and there’s all the sugars, salt and peppers, creamers, mustards and ketchups, salad dressings and whatnot here, here, here and here.”
He walks me over to another tent. This one has eight picnic tables under the canopy. “There’s three tents like this and there’s more tables out there.” He points his finger. He looks down to the floor we’re standing on. “The Ministry of Forests is who assembled this.” We’re standing on a makeshift floor made of plywood and 2×4’s. “Watch your step, it’s easy to trip. These tables all need to be wiped down throughout dinner service and this floor needs to be swept at the end of every shift. Any questions?”
I shook my head. “I’ll figure it out or I’ll ask the team inside if I can’t.”
Jesse slaps my shoulder, smiling. “You got that right, Shane. This is a team and your role in it is crucial.”
I’ll never forget my first dinner shift.
It was on a Friday. All the crews had returned from the front lines in a convoy of pickup trucks and as I was instructed I had gotten ice for the coolers so salads and desserts could be displayed, kinda like a salad bar. I had made fresh batches of coffee, large coolers of iced tea and lemonade. I brought out salads and plated slices of chocolate cake made fresh in the second, smaller kitchen. They all come out on cookie trays. I even put on some music I thought would be nice to listen to over dinner. I kept the playlist clean and upbeat and it played over a little portable speaker I hung on some rope in the main tent.
I was in the process of sweeping the floor outside when the aroma hit me. Jeff had opened up the doors and Bri and Rich, a married couple who worked as cooks as well, were beginning the process of serving up plates of pesto penne, sautéed carrots and beans, garlic bread, chicken noodle soup and pork chops. There was even a mushroom gravy sauce for those who wanted it. I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch and that I was in fact starving.
That’s when I saw him. He was maybe 25 years old. He wore a soiled yellow, long sleeve shirt, suspenders, navy blue trousers and heavy boots. He was wearing a vest with three radios and their antennas were sticking out of it. A black mask covered his mouth and a black ball cap sat atop his head. As he walked towards me he withdrew a bottle of water from a pouch he wore on his hip. He leaned back, removed his mask and downed the entire thing. I just stood there, watching this dude walk towards me. His face was black with dirt, sweat and soot. Glacial blue eyes pierced out from the dirt and as he approached me he threw the bottle into a bin.
“What’s for dinner, mate?” he said in a thick Australian accent, putting his mask back on.
“Uh… by the smell of it pork chops are waiting for you just up those stairs.” I nodded to where the smell was coming from.
Without looking at me he stared at the kitchen door, closed his eyes and said, “Awesome.” I could tell he was smelling the food, even behind his mask. “Thanks for all this.” He looked down at me with those crazy blue eyes. “The food is amazing in this camp. We really appreciate it and all your hard work.” He patted my back, walked away from me and headed for the kitchen door.
I had no words to say and I just stood there with my broom. I didn’t feel so hungry anymore. I felt an odd feeling instead, a sense of pride to be on a team like this. I hadn’t really understood the importance of our role here. I let all of that sink in as I watched droves of firefighters return from the fires. I could feel my apron blowing in the warm wind as the last of the day faded into night and I made sure to tend to the rapid pace needed to keep the supplies stocked up as a small army took to the mess tents, sat and enjoyed a hearty, delicious meal with their crew members.
I could see exhaustion in their eyes. As I wiped down tables I could hear conversations about fire lines and smoldering fires underground. I overheard a conversation about a bear and when one of the guys was passing around his phone I asked if I could see too. “Of course!” The guy showed me his phone. It was a photo of a bear looking up at the helicopter maybe 10 feet off the ground. He was a big brown bear looking up at the camera.
“He came running out of the forest as we took off. It was like he wanted in the helicopter.”
“To get away from the fire?” I asked.
He nodded. They all did. “It’s the animals that are most desperate right now.”
I ate my food alone around 11:00 p.m. I looked up at the sky. The stars were out and so was the moon. The food really WAS delicious. I wasn’t on the fire crews but I bet ya I did 100 sets of stairs running up and down from the tent to the coolers, maybe a 50 foot journey one way each time. I was hungry and I over ate. I was walking like a pregnant woman afterwards.
I made sure the floors were swept, garbage cans were emptied, coffee was ready for the morning crew, cups and bowls and utensils were all stocked, tables were wiped down. I grabbed my toiletries from my car and hauled my tired ass up the stairs and took my first shower. It was just me in one of the six stalls. I stood there in the hot water for a long time and let the day, all of its intrigue and hustle, sweat and dust wash down my body and into the drain.
Afterwards I made my way over to my car. I opened the hatch and left it open. The early morning air was now cooling down and the wind was strong. The flies seemed to be asleep so I slipped into my little bed, wrapped myself up in my blankets, my head hit the pillow and I let the exhaustion wash over me in an awesome wave.