Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin
It was September 2019, and I’d been slow-roasting in a small Southern Oregon town for a couple of weeks, waiting on a big one. A wildfire. An opportunity. A chance to prove myself useful and, preferably, profitable. This was the pre-coronavirus era, a simpler time.
From the South, I had driven out West in hopes of embedding with workers at a “fire camp,” the catchall phrase used to describe the base of operations during any major wildfire. Fire camps—many established in the middle of nowhere—are where frontline containment is coordinated, resources are mobilized, personnel are sheltered and fed. These are usually federally led operations, with anywhere from 150 to 2,000 people on-site.
Devastating wildfires have become a regular feature of life in the American West. The cost of fighting them currently burns through 53 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget, compared with 16 percent in 1992. Even the Department of Defense has declared climate-change-related wildfires a national-security threat. The summer and fall were traditionally prime fire time—with fire camps following the blazes like circuses on the harvest-festival circuit. But now scientists, journalists, and government officials have christened extended, seemingly year-long fire seasons “the new normal.”
Every fire camp is a mini city, albeit a temporary one. My plan had been to report on what the new normal of months-long fires looked like from the center of such a city. I wasn’t particularly curious about the much-glorified firefighters, the distraught victims, or the anguish over the loss of inanimate structures. Nor did I want to engage in hand-wringing about climate change. I just wanted to know about the people laboring at fire camp.
This kind of job didn’t really have a name way back in 2019. But during the pandemic, we (the media, the public) began referring to these behind-the-scenes operators as “essential workers.” Before anybody cared, however, you’d just call them “grunts.”
I assumed previous occupational experience in the hospitality industry would give me a chance to get in on the action. While failing to be a respectably employed journalist, I often moonlight as a kitchen grunt. I’ve worked in slop joints, shopping-center fusion, hippie shacks, and fine dining. It’s a fallback career I’m forever falling back on, and just one of the reasons the food-service industry, I think, provides the truest glimpses of where we are and where we’re headed as a culture. Follow what’s happening in the food world, and you don’t just have a finger on the pulse of society; you have an ear to its stomach.
I made inquiries about becoming a laborer at a national-disaster site, working full-time for a company that caters, quite literally, to mass emergencies—one of the 16 companies that run 29 federally contracted mobile food-service units (MFSUs) specializing in fire-camp cuisine. I called all the western-based MFSUs, offering my services. In return, they offered zero promises. The thing about most restaurants, though, is that there’s high employee turnover. I figured I could show up unannounced with a modicum of experience and eventually a kitchen would give me a shot. Sure enough, a couple of MFSUs warmed to my proposal.
A manager of Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering said I could come hang out on the lot of its MFSU kitchen in Lakeview, Oregon, a warehouse on a flat expanse of gravel behind a car dealership. Camping would be free of charge (the company put me in a cozy trailer) and should a major fire break out, I’d be right there from the beginning.
I showed up and waited, using my time to catch up on the doorstop-size federal contract, the “Blue Book,” that spelled out the rules and regulations for emergency mobile food service at great length and in exacting detail. The many specific requirements and compliances would be enforced, it said, by the food-unit leader—part of Overhead, the government’s on-site management team at fire camp.
In the mid-20th century, the Forest Service tackled wildfires as its forefather the Army had, as a military campaign—total domination. In and out. Everything run in-house. Latrine duty and field rations. Engaged in an endless War on Fire over the past few decades, the government has turned to private contractors for most aspects of fire suppression. In 1973, five private companies formed the National Mobile Shower and Catering Association. A cobbled-together industry quickly professionalized and standardized. Around that time, a man named Tom Stewart was running a family grocery in Lakeview, where Overhead teams had been purchasing supplies. In 1977, they struck a deal no longer than a few contractual pages. His first call was that summer. Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering grew in size, as did the number of disaster businesses and the thickness of the Blue Book.
One of the few disaster-catering companies still under original ownership, Stewart’s retains its retro logo and is now a family business in its third generation, with the fourth occasionally pitching in.
The days in Lakeview dragged by; the fire season itself had been unusually slow that year. Occasionally, a few of us would pile in a truck and drive out of town, park high above a ridge, and look for smoke signals in the beige distance. The boredom and ennui were palpable.
On September 5, clouds started forming. That night there was lightning. The next day’s sky, however, was peaceful and picturesque. I turned in early. One more day, I told myself, then back home to find a real job. Freelance journalism wasn’t paying the bills, and I began resigning myself to the likelihood that I’d return home in search of regular kitchen work. Maybe as a prep or line cook—I lacked the skills to be a sous chef, certainly not a head honcho. A kitchen would have to be in real bad shape to put me in charge of everything. Such a situation would require a divine act or an extended period trapped in a state of disaster.
To use a phrase I’ve never heard uttered: Thank God for California.
Our chief banged on my trailer door at 8 a.m. The South Fire had been officially reported near California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Stewart’s team in Klamath Falls, Oregon, had been tapped to run the fire-camp kitchen. They had a full crew, the chief said, but maybe they could use the few of us hanging around the Lakeview lot. We secured our gear and took off. At the Klamath warehouse, we got a quick pep talk from the site boss, Tom Stewart’s grandson. There was poor access to the heart of the inferno because, next to Shasta-Trinity, the Red Bank Fire had already torn through more than 6,000 acres. Our fleet of vehicles convoyed five hours south-southwest across the state line. By the time we got to our designated location, the South Fire had spread across 1,200 acres. It was on.
Fire camps get established where the Forest Service deems necessary. For the South Fire, it had commandeered a mid-tier camping site—a “recreational heaven,” according to the property’s website—that had a small general store and was just 45 minutes off Interstate 5. We were directed to a cul-de-sac half a mile from the general store, at the end of a cabin-filled lane. It seemed a little cramped for a federal-disaster kitchen, but the prospect of small amenities made it significantly less backwoodsy than some fire-camp locations I’d heard about. There was no cell service, but there was spotty Wi-Fi.
Under a boiling 98-degree sun, I watched as the kitchen—a converted semitrailer—was slowly backed into a flat, open clearing. Behind me, the caravan idled. There was the beverage trailer, the dry-storage cargo truck, a small refrigerator truck and a semi-length walk-in freezer (called “reefers”), as well as four or five pickups, hauling everything from a 1,000-gallon water tank to a smoker capable of cooking 750 pounds of meat to a generator the size of a bison. Running the trucks’ air conditioners or stretching their legs were the other 22 crew members, wearing the same thick navy-blue cotton tee, with “Stewart’s” branded on the left breast.
One employee, who had a chef’s knife tattooed on his forearm, waved his ink toward the epicenter of our soon-to-be pop-up restaurant and said, “Let’s put up the circus.” The scurrying began as soon as our kitchen was dropped off. Reefers and storage trucks glided into place. Out came hoses and tubes and cords the size of pythons. The metal bones of the two dining tents were laid out across the dirt like an elephant graveyard, then raised. The crashing and cranking and clamoring and cursing carried on well into the evening.
“The wind’s picking up,” my knife-tatted co-worker said, as we continued working after dark. “That’s bad for the fire.” Then he shrugged. “Good for us.” It might have sounded like a twisted sentiment if I hadn’t spent years with a similar mentality as a journalist. Burly members of the crew—which was about 90 percent men—slowly, methodically reorganized boxes and supplies in the dry-storage truck. “Job security,” they kept calling it. A way of “milling the hours.”
Because the 2019 wildfire season had had such a slow start, everyone was desperate for the hours. The year’s payout was looking thin. In a normal year, you could make $20,000 in four or five months. No benefits, but food and lodging were provided. A lot of folks, I was told, live off that, supplemented by welfare, unemployment, or short-term jobs during the off-season.
By 2 a.m., most of the setup work had been done and people had really started drifting away. Except for the snorting generator, fire camp was quiet. The only person still up and working was a guy who’d been permanently attached to various electronics since we met up with the Klamath crew. Earlier, during the circus, he’d called me “boy” despite what seemed like an obvious and reverse age difference.
His name was Kaleb. He had long, flat hair past his shoulders. He was folding cardboard containers the size and shape of small trash bins. Food boxes, I’d learn, meant for something called “spike camp.” I stood in front of him for a solid minute before he looked up. A break? Sure. And don’t fret. “My first time, I wandered around for a week not knowing what to do.”
I hadn’t had the time, or perhaps the good sense, to set up my tent beforehand and was too exhausted now. I crashed, sitting straight up in my truck. I’d figure things out tomorrow.
Upon arrival, I’d been assigned to freight, which was under Kaleb’s supervision. In restaurant parlance, the dining area is front-of-house and the kitchen is back-of-house. Here, freight was more like back-of-back-of-house, true grunt work: unloading deliveries from the Sysco semi that had dropped off all our supplies; churning out hundreds of sack lunches, assembly-line-style, in the semi reefer; deep cleaning and odd jobs.
Freight was primarily guys who had obviously cut their teeth on rougher life experiences and could still smile about it through weathered faces. The gallows humor extended to the company’s nickname, as represented by the kind of employees it attracts: “Stewart’s Rehab.”
Working freight—be it in the dusty heat or the arctic reefer—became soul-suckingly monotonous after two days. So I made a play for real kitchen work.
“Actually, yeah,” Ruby said when I popped my head into the kitchen at about 4 a.m. on day three and asked if she needed any help. “My cooks are asleep, apparently.”
Ruby was the head cook, the kitchen manager, and I immediately pegged her as a type. She had jet-black hair, proudly identified as a “gamer girl,” and her Nightmare Before Christmas socks were not simply a film tribute but “a way of life.” Ruby and her second-in-command, Josie, a petite collegiate blonde not a day over 22, were scrambling. For Josie, it was literal. She was quietly pouring bags of yellow liquid egg into a tilt skillet and stirring the soup into a solid using a three-foot-long stainless-steel paddle. The ovens, I was told, were on the fritz, so Ruby had me drop bacon into the deep fryers.
It didn’t take me long to understand that we were cooking stomach anchors, not taste-bud tinglers. Instead of foie gras and bordelaise, our crew made large batches of heavy sustenance: things such as well-done chicken, powdered potatoes, instant gravy. Canned veggies were heated and dressed in brown sugar and spices. The liquid for Josie’s scrambled eggs came in 20-pound bags, and deep-frying bacon was an hour-long process. This was high-volume catering. The situation, and the contract, demanded it.
The Missoula Technology and Development Center, a Forest Service outpost in Montana, has long established that male firefighters need up to 6,000 calories a day. Studies have broken that need down even further by energy group (protein, carbohydrates, fat). This is a primary reason for the strict food standards and exacting portion sizes specified in the Blue Book.
Changes in society’s general food preferences have affected the contract requirements over the years. There are now more vegetarian options and an increased emphasis on natural ingredients and fresh products. More recent Forest Service nutritional studies recommend that firefighters eat continuously throughout the day, to better maintain a healthy physiology during extended periods of high-stress energy output. So we made sacks of grazing lunches, full of protein, fruits, and vegetables, each weighing a good three or four pounds.
When Tom Stewart got his first wildfire call, in 1977, he rushed to the scene in his delivery truck. Upon arriving, Stewart found that the back was loaded with crab puffs, shrimp puffs, cream puffs, meat trays—a bevy of lovely appetizers. They had been put there by his wife, Ann, who was supposed to be catering a wedding that day. The firefighters ate the party delicacies instead. Stewart remembers making hearty stews from scratch, too, although he wouldn’t be allowed to improvise like that these days and keep the contract. It’d be impossible to know whether each portion contained the correct amount of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables. Josie put it most succinctly when I once asked her what we were making for dinner. “Some kind of meat, some kind of potato,” she said, barely looking up from her task.
Exacting calculations lay behind the menus at fire camp. Each plate of disaster catering costs about $28 to make. Chefs make similar per-plate calculations in normal restaurants. Here, though, actual cuisine was as abstract as the wildfire we were on. At least mass-frying bacon gave me time to survey the kitchen.
At the front end of the semi was the walk-in cooler, about 60 square feet, behind clear plastic. The door connected to a ramp that led into the reefer semi. Cramped inside the kitchen were two 40-gallon stainless-steel tilt skillets that each looked like a billionaire child’s Jacuzzi; a six-gallon kettle, also stainless steel; two deep fryers; two griddles below a venting system and atop the six fritzing convection ovens; and, finally, an eight-foot-tall warming cabinet. The possibility that this semi would be my entire world for much of our time at fire camp was strangely comforting.
I’d gone through three or four boxes of bacon when two other cooks came bounding in. Josh looked about my age, maybe a few years younger. He was a California Latino, had a solid base frame, and moved with the grace of a sports car in low gear. Already smiling at 5 a.m., he beelined to the stereo and cranked some club beats. Ryan, wirily handsome in a locally sourced and free-range kind of way, seemed to coast on a young white man’s charm. He gravitated toward Josie, who kept on working with the efficient, quiet industriousness of a seasoned pro.
By 5:30, the kitchen was bustling. By 5:50, the whole camp had started to come alive. We were strictly open for breakfast from 6 to 9 a.m. For three hours, we served plates of precise portions. I was tasked with ladling oatmeal into bowls. It beat freight work.
Near the end of breakfast, Ruby cornered me. Ryan was okay, but I stayed focused. I pressed my advantage. By the end of day four, I’d spent the past two breakfast and dinner services on the line, and Ryan was sent to freight, voted off, it seemed. The period felt a little like an extended episode of Hell’s Kitchen. I had won the challenge.
My tent was up. My job was set. The basic work rhythms made sense. I was finally in a groove, and fire camp at large seemed to be getting into one as well. The outhouses had finally arrived, as had the mobile shower company. There was talk, too, that a laundry business was en route. When a T-shirt merchant set up shop just past the border of our tent city, near Overhead and the general store, we knew the South Fire was the real deal.
At the start of day four, exactly zero percent of the fire had officially been contained. The excited refrain was: We could be here until October. Think of the hours!
The front of our kitchen faced west, toward the dining hall and, far, far beyond that, a long ridge. When the sun set, the crests glowed with every iridescent shade of red and orange. It looked as if the ridge was aflame. We never saw any actual fire, though.
Long gone are the days when fire camp was established as close to blazes as possible. Tom Stewart told me about driving into walls of smoke and praying he made it through. That was decades ago. Not that disasters don’t happen sometimes. One old-timer told me about one of the most famous wildfire photos ever, taken in Montana in 2000. He said it was shot from the fire camp where his entire kitchen got burned over. Now, however, veterans told me, the safe distance required between fire camp and the inferno is growing and growing.
Fire camp’s various rules, regulations, and general safety precautions took some of the romance out of the whole adventure. The entire operation was run by Overhead’s incident-management team. Most of its members were older white men with trim white beards or ruddy faces, a Leatherman looped through a belt buried at varying depths of paunch. Some of the younger ones were built and clean-shaven, and gave the impression that they longed to reenlist. In general, Overhead looked like stiff bureaucrats on a mandated fishing expedition, government lifers. Unlike everyone else at fire camp, they never looked dirty. They liked to run camp as if it were a semiformal military operation.
Everything was regulated. Lights-out came at 10 p.m. on the dot, when a crew of young whippersnappers from the California Conservation Corps would go around killing the floodlights. The CCC is a service for 18-to-25-year-olds who do various chores and small projects around fire camp. The “Cs” dressed crisply in matching tan button-ups, work pants, and hiking boots, and always moved in packs of twos or fours (apparently this was a safety requirement). The girls looked like they had all been on the dean’s list and the boys looked like they were all trying to do their best James Dean.
All the fun things in life—sex, guns, booze, drugs—were prohibited. Women on our crew told me that the firefighters were discouraged from flirting with the kitchen staff, although errant notes were slipped through the serving window or into a personal tent on more than one occasion. Temporary tent cohabitation was a no-no, although everyone assured me that people got plenty laid.
Apart from an STD, it was unclear how someone might actually get reprimanded for having sex. Those other vices, however, were policed by private security. It struck me as odd that there would be a Checkpoint Charlie at the front of camp, but a guard told me that thefts are a not uncommon problem. Among the few people I actively disliked was one security guard, a jacked gym rat on a no-nonsense keto diet. She was stiffly arrogant as she patrolled the camp and, unprovoked, would explain her perpetually sour demeanor by saying things like “I can’t help telling it like it is” or “That’s just how redheads are.”
In place of booze and drugs, there were at least the wan pleasures of consumerism, which were more abundant than one might think. Anytime there’s a major wildfire, swag vendors will crank out a batch of clothes and set up shop at the border of fire camp. The production is as quick and cheap as the design. Except for some fresh lettering that details the name of the fire and its location, the shirts are interchangeable. The one I bought for my significant other says South Fire above pictures of some piney mountains, a green fire truck, and a large elk.
Everyone, it seems, gets a fire shirt whenever they’re at a new disaster and wears their old souvenirs at the current one. Our vendor had more than just the standard rags. The gear included fireman-related thermoses (“First in, last out”). Other T-shirts were of higher quality and played with iconography. There was the stoic, black-and-white American flag often used by Blue Lives Matter, except this one had a red stripe in the middle. Another was made to look like the label on a bottle of Fireball, with Firecall replacing the brand name. Yet another had graphics that mimicked the “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content” sticker:
It was far and away the most popular. Ryan, in a shopping frenzy, bought more stuff than anyone else did, nearly $200 worth. There was money to be made at fire camp.
Private fire-related businesses were everywhere. After a veteran of many a fire camp found out what I did during the off-season, he went on about how I should start a trade magazine for the wildfire-and-disaster industry. He said I could make big money by selling ad space to the various businesses. Honestly, it wasn’t a bad idea.
“Disaster capitalism” is hardly a new concept, although the phrase itself is attributed to Naomi Klein, who used it in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, as a way to describe how corporations profiteer off war and crises on a large scale. As climate change has created a new normal, it’s also expanded the definition and scope of disaster capitalism.
The Atlantic’s own Alexis Madrigal has noted that the past few years have seen the rise of private firefighting companies for the rich and disaster-related trinkets for the rest of us. Yet disaster capitalism takes on more mundane forms too, especially at fire camp.
“In 2008, the Forest Service spent $757 million on more than 1,000 private contracts, roughly 52% of its $1.46 billion budget for wildfire suppression,” according to a 2011 Fortune article. Those figures haven’t much changed. Debbie Miley, the executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents the private wildfire industry, told me that private contractors “make up about 40 percent of all of the resources that are available.” That number “can fluctuate a little bit depending on the fire season … In some regions [such as] Oregon and Washington ... we can make up to as much as 65 percent of the industry that’s available.”
Most of the private contractors, Miley said, are small companies with a few employees. I had never before considered how many private businesses operated at fire camp. At ours, there was Triple Flare, which advertises itself as “fire-camp recycling.” There was a traveling mom-and-pop laundry service that spent the fire season cleaning clothes in a converted horse trailer. There were the grease collector, the water guys, the porta-potty company, and, of course, the food-service vendors like Sysco that have reps throughout the West who specifically work with MFSUs.
Grayback, our on-site shower service, was the only business I dreaded going to. It wasn’t because I was told that the private shower stalls were a popular place to masturbate and where, on at least one fire, someone had taken a shower shit. Though there was that. It was because I started getting … I don’t want to say “harassed.” That sounds like I’m making a direct comparison to what women experience (not even close). It’s wordy but let’s just say that I received a relentless barrage of unreciprocated advances.
Whenever I needed to take a shower or use a sink, which was every day, I had to steel myself against the female Grayback employee. She kept complimenting my looks and literally said, “You should smile more.” I didn’t know a polite way to get her to stop so I smiled silently and tersely. This only made things worse. She started addressing me as “Mr. Smiley.” When I flatly told her my name, she just said, “Hmm, no, you don’t look like a Jeff.”
I couldn’t tell her to fuck off, because then I’d have to deal with that drama every day. I felt trapped. Employees couldn’t be forced to stay on-site, but leaving camp was strongly discouraged, as was bringing one’s personal vehicle to the site. The bosses wanted us to stay close, and be ready to work at all times. Getaway wheels were too tempting a pleasure. I was trapped.
The oppressive September heat, all the working hours, the regulations, the relentless barrage of unreciprocated advances, the prohibitions on self-medicating—it was all starting to feel a little claustrophobic.
Lying down in the tent after lights-out, I thought about how good it would feel to sink into a whiskey oblivion. Even to float on a cloud of THC, which I’m not partial to, as it usually makes me a tad edgy. Through the tent, however, I’d occasionally catch an inviting whiff. Probably just a California skunk’s pleasant fart, I thought. Surely nobody would be breaking the semiformal military rules specified by our benevolent federal overlords.
“Did anybody get sent home last night?” Josie asked, as calm as ever. It was 5 a.m, still too early to know whether we were getting kicked off the fire. We’d been prepping for dinner the previous afternoon when it became obvious that a problem was afoot. Crew members began coming in through the kitchen’s back door, then carefully and strenuously craning their neck out the front threshold, their body half-hidden, like secret agents spying on the enemy.
All our tents were grouped together about 30 yards from the kitchen. It was the Cook’s Alley of fire camp. Because we were camping, on contract, within a federally designated emergency zone, we’d ceded basic Fourth Amendment rights. For reasons that were completely hazy to me, the redheaded guard had brought in a gun-toting forest ranger and a very eager drug dog. News of the sting operation got passed around faster than a joint at a high school house party while the ranger took her time rummaging through our tents, the dog tearing holes in the fabric as it pawed and snorted for contraband.
Ruby told me that when a drug check happened at another fire she was on, half the catering crew took off to hide in the nearby woods. Just imagine the sight!
This time, nobody ran. The gossip, however, was that people could be sent home or fined. Overhead could even terminate our contract and bring in an entirely different MFSU.
The prohibition of intoxicants at fire camp, even in a disaster kitchen, makes a bare minimum of sense. But there’s a reason few respectable restaurants do a urine test. The high pressure and low pay of essential kitchen work are often offset only by the steady employment and flexible rules. Ruby knew this.
“Kitchens are filled with masochists and addicts,” she’d said with deadpan authority just before dinner service on day five.
She was only in her first year as a full-fledged kitchen manager, but at 29 Ruby had spent her entire adulthood in the biz, working primarily in high-volume institutional fare. Before Stewart’s, Ruby had cooked at an airport restaurant, at a senior center, in hospice care, and with another disaster-catering company. During the off-season, she worked at an expo center.
Away from fire camp, Ruby and I would probably orbit in different circles. On the line, though, she seemed like my kind of person. I got into kitchen work in the mid-aughts, at the height of our food culture’s star-focused obsession with the chef-auteur. The glorification of masochists and addicts was the sort of braggadocio I’d experienced and admired in my late teens and early 20s.
The young crews I was on had our heroes: Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, et al. But we really gravitated toward the badasses. Anthony Bourdain in particular, with his seminal 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential, made food service fashionable, turning crass, hard-partying hourly grease slingers like us into underground rock stars.
A lot’s changed since. Ten years after his memoir’s publication, Bourdain wrote that he encountered “young fans of Kitchen Confidential, for whom the book was a validation of their worst natures.” It was a prescient observation. An atmosphere that fostered the idea of the chef and cook as a difficult visionary (almost exclusively a white man) glossed over or ignored the realities of the kitchen—behavior that was every flavor of abuse.
During the past few years, the culture, both at large and in kitchens, has begun addressing toxic issues—harassment, shoddy labor practices, poor mental health, and addiction—in the past few years. And as the world burns unabated, celebrity chefs have turned their skills to culinary triage. Call it “disaster gastronomy” if you want to sound fancy. José Andrés founded World Central Kitchen in 2010, and when Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico in 2017, WCK sent a chef relief team that served more than 3.7 million meals, garnering massive media attention. Afterward, he wrote a book about the experience, titled We Fed an Island. Since then, WCK’s volunteer-chef relief teams have been “cooking every single day,” serving “more than 45 million meals” at hurricanes, floods, and, of course, wildfires, according to its website.
Even the mayor of Flavortown has gotten in on the action. The same year as Hurricane Maria, Guy Fieri served up barbecue for thousands of evacuees of the Tubbs Fire, which tore through California’s Sonoma County. Fieri’s wine-forward Food Network peer Tyler Florence made the Sonoma disaster the subject of Uncrushable, his documentary about the painful resilience of first responders and victims. Fieri was also at both the Carr Fire and the Camp Fire in 2018. “So many great people stepping up to take care of one another,” he tweeted above a photo of a fire truck, a wall of flames behind it. Hashtag: #ProudAmerican.
As the New York Times food critic Tejal Rao put it in an August column about the death rattle of the toxic chef-auteur era, its rise and current decline has informed “the industry’s culture at every level.” Perhaps, too, the disaster gastronomy trend will move in a positive direction. As far as our middle-of-nowhere kitchen was concerned, however, things were still pretty rough. The whole experience was getting to me. Bad. I don’t want to project, but it seemed to be getting to others too. Even our rock, Josie, started showing cracks. “What a weird day,” she said after the drug-raid dinner service.
“Cruising altitude” is what Ruby, during the chaos of a planned Tex-Mex night, had called the manic exhaustion that had already settled in all of us, just a week into camp. It’s just what you learn to live with and embrace, she said. Maybe, I thought.
Day-seven breakfast went smoothly enough, despite lingering paranoia from the previous evening. No one got sent home, and we still had the contract. But when I came in later for day-seven dinner prep, the kitchen wasn’t just manic; it was madness. The bad kind of chaos. Unorganized.
I think it had something to do with prepping for “spike camp,” where the fire crews at the battle’s front lines sleep in the rough and have their meals delivered daily. There’d been some kind of screwup with the chow load. Bug-eyed and trembling, Ruby pressed her hands against her head in a vise grip. This, I’d learned, was a tic of hers. She also began mumbling to herself.
I’d worked in restaurants that had collapsed. It was pretty clear to me that our cruising altitude wouldn’t be high enough to clear approaching mountains. Kaleb—the wire-bound freight captain I’d met on day one—seemed like a likely candidate for a crash.
In theory, work was organized into split shifts, which are two eight-hour blocks of work broken up by one eight-hour block of rest. In reality, everyone seemed to be working 12 to 14 hours at a time, buffered by the occasional snooze. Folks kept talking about overtime, which I understood, and something called “California OT,” which apparently meant time and a half plus another half after working more than 12 hours a day.
Everyone, all the time, talked about “the hours.” One crew member told me, “I want the hours and I want the sleep,” but was evenly split over which they wanted more. There was an unspoken agreement among the crew to not work too fast, especially because management was trying to limit OT, California OT in particular.
“You’re the only one who’s excited about getting off,” Ruby told me. Excited was the wrong word, but I certainly expressed no desire to work a second longer than necessary. For starters, I was in excruciating and inescapable physical pain. Standing on one’s feet all day can do that.
Lying down in the quietude after fire camp’s official lights-out, I could hear the screams of my lower half. Trying to nap during the day was better, if only because the heat forced things into relative perspective. My tent was an oven, and it either melted me into a restless sleep or had me resigned to sitting in a shaded chair, very still, until the dinner shift. Keeping drug- and alcohol-free meant there was no temporary relief. I’d had a rough two years already—full Millennial burnout. I could tell I was particularly vulnerable to an actual breakdown and had enough sense and good fortune, as well as a safety net of financially stable loved ones, to recognize the impending problem. Others didn’t seem as lucky.
Kaleb took a beating. He probably slept about three hours a day.
There was a moment, maybe on day four, when I watched him squat on a tiny wheelbarrow. He just sat there, hunched over, for five minutes before lurching back to work. The next day, he was slouched just outside the big reefer, deflated. Somebody would open the door and it’d bop him on the back. He never reacted.
Kaleb made it four more days, until day nine.
“You didn’t hear it?” Ryan asked, as he waited for a ride out of camp. He meant that literally. One of our crew managers had berated both Kaleb and Ryan so loudly, it could be heard halfway to Overhead. Ryan told me his and Kaleb’s side of the story. It seemed like one of those things where you had to be there. They got straight outta fire camp that evening, after we made them hearty to-go plates.
Why, exactly, Kaleb and Ryan left or who was at fault, I never figured out. When I started researching disaster-catering companies, one of them told me that it had been approached several times by reality-show people. The Forest Service stonewalled any and all efforts. In fact, the latest Blue Book—the one issued for the 2020–24 contract period—includes a line regulating any reality-TV productions or other commercial filming. Probably for the best. Fire camp is already a can of gasoline and doesn’t need a digital match.
Camp had become isolating. Like any city, I suppose. I was told it was common for people to get Dear John letters from home. Josh was in one of the porta-potties and heard a guy in the adjoining toilet sobbing to someone, over the Wi-Fi cell service, that his girlfriend had just dumped him. My worst day at fire camp was after my significant other called me, very upset, after a bad personal experience. I couldn’t do anything but worry and work.
I was scrubbing the grill on day 10 when Ruby came in, stomped to the middle of the semi-kitchen, and let out a blood-curdling scream.
“Sorry,” she said, “I just needed to get that out.”
The immediate reason for Ruby’s uncorked rage was that one underling had given herself a nasty knife cut. Somebody suggested that we deep-fry the finger, to cauterize the wound. This idea was collectively nixed, mostly because it would mean cleaning out the fryer afterward, a job nobody thought was worth the hours.
Ruby’s fretting was irksome to me. I had started making a list of petty grievances. Her awkward, passive-aggressive comments—meant innocently, I’m sure—were off-putting as well. More than once, she said I was getting fewer hours than other people and should remember that when I do my story. At one point during day 10, she complimented my work ethic by saying: “Most new people would have quit by now.”
The crew’s only other newbie had dropped out around day three. So the thought had occurred to me.
Ruby fell completely to pieces right before the dinner rush. It was steak day. Everyone’s favorite. We had just sent out the spike-camp delivery.
Our first task of the dinner shift was always spike camp. If fire camp is the base from which general troops are sent to the front, then spike is the tactical outpost behind enemy lines. At spike, personnel fight the wildfire, eat, and sleep. That’s about it. They don’t come in for a shower or to take advantage of the Wi-Fi.
We prepped 50 to 100 daily spike meals, which were cooked and quickly packaged in bin-size cardboard boxes. They had to be loaded on pallets by 4:45 p.m. exactly so that they could be airlifted or driven to spike for scheduled supper. Plates and utensils and condiments and cups and beverages both hot and cold were sent along as well. It’s not that dissimilar from a standard food-delivery service such as Uber Eats, just large-scale and without the tips.
Along with the spike payload came the “dead-man’s plate.” This wasn’t for eating. It was a plastic-wrapped display of the full hot dinner, portioned out so that crew chiefs could see exactly how much food each firefighter was supposed to get. The phrase’s morbid etymology was obvious enough. It was a reality that hung over us all.
The veterans of disaster catering, Ruby included, considered serving firefighters an important honor. Regardless of fire camp’s duration, you were stuck—trapped—with the same people for long stretches of time, and got to know one another intimately. Veterans I spoke with had all known firefighters who, for weeks, had come through the kitchen line until one day they didn’t. Ruby’s known three firefighters for whom she’s served their final meal.
The closest I ever got to the wildfire was the smell of smoke that wafted from soot-covered firefighters at the service window. The regular firefighters ate as a crew, so they arrived in waves, usually 20 to 30 at a time. Apart from a couple of firefighters who were actual hotshots and acted like it, everyone was tired and courteous. Some were a bit curt and at times selective about hot items that looked especially unappealing. A few crews were all Latino; they would smile at us and take whatever we gave them. I first interpreted this as them being stand-up folks, thankful for the meal, but later realized it probably had more to do with the language barrier. When I took my time to sputter a few Spanish words to explain the dishes, they got choosier. If they dragged too much, Josh would stick his head out the service window and yell at them in plain Spanish to pick up the pace.
The Overhead Boomers were always the first to eat. Their impatience when waiting for us to open for service is a running joke among disaster catering crews. They also ate like picky children: Nah, I don’t want no vegetables. (“Incident management team members do less arduous work than wildland firefighters,” one Forest Service publication reads. “Dietary needs are based on the daily energy expenditure required to maintain the body mass index … in the normal range.”) Conversely, almost all of the bright-eyed Cs eagerly accepted their plates and ate like college freshmen. We got to know who the vegetarians were, and had their plates ready in advance. We made the security guard her special keto plate. I even smiled on command for the Grayback employee.
After one rush, Ruby said we’d served 208 people in 45 minutes.
I never learned any of their names and almost never saw people’s full faces. The service windows’ ledges were at eye level, so it was mostly hands that reached out to take the offerings. The interactions were simultaneously intimate yet detached. The sacred made institutional. Ruby once commented that this job was like the cooking she’d done in hospice care.
When crews arrived at the same time, the bodies snaked from the serving window, past the hand-washing station, past the dining tent, and out the main entrance 100 yards away. If we had to make more food on the fly, the line halted and the pressure was excruciating. Some of us blamed Stewart’s management for screwing up the count, while management, naturally, insinuated that we were overfilling plates. Either way, it meant the firefighters who worked so hard all day had to wait while we drowned in the weeds, failing at our one duty, to serve basic foodstuffs. It also meant possible demerits from Overhead and poor marks on the company evaluation, which itself could lead to the MSFU losing its contract.
Before the day-13 dinner rush, we’d made the steaks and shipped them out to spike camp but, for whatever reason, had forgotten to package up an entire batch. I found the deep-sixed pan of cooked steaks cooling in one of the fritzed ovens just a little after dinner service had started.
The specific ways in which Ruby responded to intense stress had become so predictable that I recognized the physical signs. This time, something was … different. In their worst moments, the male chefs I’ve worked under usually reacted outwardly. They would verbally abuse the closest sentient being. Turn kitchenware into projectiles. Challenge the universe to a duel. Explode. I was used to that and knew how to react: Duck and cover. Ruby imploded like a black hole. She lost herself, inward. She seemed shell-shocked. I didn’t know what to do.
Anyone who’s worked in a kitchen knows what we did: We kept working. There was no other option. We eventually made it through steak night, but it was one of those shifts that fucks you up, with or without self-medication.
At least things couldn’t get any worse.
Things got worse. Dinner service the night before was a shit show.
We got slammed. Hard. We ran out of the scheduled pot roast and had to make pork chops on the fly. It was yet another mystery incident in portion planning that no one could figure out. Management pored over the numbers written on the kitchen dry-erase board, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Mid-shift, Ruby told one of the managers that maybe she should just be relieved of duty. I heard another one supportively tell her to “hold the line.” Don’t abandon your position, he said.
Once the rush died down, Ruby was glassy-eyed and moving robotically. It was a good thing Josie was still there. We’d have been screwed without her. Unfortunately, this was Josie’s last night. Despite our pleas, she left today, picked up by her mom, and headed back to college, where she was studying echocardiography imaging. This year’s uneventful fire season was going to make it harder for her to pay her college bills, she said. But she’d be back next year.
Almost immediately after Josie left, Ruby started in—talking aloud to no one in particular—about how much she missed and needed her. And there was a lot of truth to it. Josie had been Ruby’s blessed second in command, and our rock. A calm and unwavering leader whom I most often turned to with work-related questions. This had been her sixth or seventh fire camp. Josh and I tried our best, offering recommendations on how to handle and plan a shift’s prep work like Josie had done. No one wanted to have another pot-roast incident. Ruby’s comments became more and more passive-aggressive. She responded to our queries with statements like “Or we could do it like I said” or got quiet and mopey.
Ruby was at the grill, remaking toast she had burned, when I asked what she wanted to do with the first batch on the prep table.
“You guys just do whatever you think you should do.”
This set me off.
“OH, FUCKING COME ON, CHEF!”
I slammed my hands on the counter and pushed some boxes—having enough good sense to aim for something that wouldn’t break or need to be cleaned up. I also had the good sense, I thought, to address Ruby as “Chef.”
Ruby didn’t respond. She just disappeared. Didn’t even finish the toast she was grilling. I’d never seen a chef do that before. So much for holding the line, I thought. Josh and I doubled down. Something to prove, I guess. When I took a smoke break, I noticed that Ruby had moved her tent some distance away from the others.
Josh and I got through day-16 service—the power went out twice—and were determined. We decided to come in early for day-17 breakfast prep, really bust it out. We didn’t need Ruby.
Day 17—Breakfast Shift
Ruby apparently had the same plan as us. When I came in around 4:30 a.m., she was already at the grill, headphones in, blasting her metal. I tried to say hello, to start afresh. She ignored me completely. Breakfast service was in full swing when a crew member came in and began helping at the window. Ruby wanted to know if a manager had told him to come in; she wanted to know why he was in her kitchen. “If these guys aren’t able to serve, then we’re in trouble.”
“HEY, COME ON!” Josh and I yelled in unison. No “Chef” this time. It was all downhill from there.
Ruby announced that after she cooked up the hash, she was done. The only time we saw her for the rest of the morning was when she was huddled with the managers outside. That afternoon, they talked with me and Josh, separately. Josh opted to work freight if Ruby was going to be around. I just wanted to reach the end of fire camp on okay terms.
As Josh and I got ready for dinner prep, Ruby returned. She’d clearly been coached by management, because she started repeating a version of what I’d said to them—hoity-toity talk about the need for communication and open dialogue with your employees. And she still couldn’t help herself.
“It’s come to my attention from around camp that your guys’ feelings were hurt,” she said. “I’m not used to working with people who are so sensitive. So I apologize again.”
Day 17—Dinner Shift
When I signed up, I’d half-expected some of our minor problems, standard kitchen stuff: The six large convection ovens never stopped fritzing; the damn generator; we bungled orders or prematurely ran out of food a few times; a cut here, a burn there. What I had not quite expected were the bigger problems. There was that thing with the drug dog, and the barrage of unreciprocated advances. The blowups.
Where were the celebrities and the smiles? Where was the collective, energetic sense that we were part of a greater cause?
Ten minutes before the newly intense dinner rush, such lofty questions were put on the back burner in light of a far more pressing concern: What were we doing about the damn vegetables?
Our tiny kitchen would be open for dinner service within minutes. The rush would begin almost immediately. The potatoes were hot. The chicken was cooked. Everything was ready and waiting on the line. Everything but the damn vegetables.
It was the kind of problem any nominally experienced kitchen grunt would bring to the attention of the restaurant’s head cook.
I looked around.
Josie was long gone. Josh had stormed out in protest to go work in freight after Ruby’s “apology.” I had told Ruby flatly that her passive-aggressiveness was unhelpful. On her way out, Ruby told me, “If Josh doesn’t come back, you’re in charge.”
Ten pounds of frozen vegetables needed to be thawed, heated, and flavored on the fly. I improvised. I leaned over the eight-foot-long griddle, double-fisting industrial-size metal spatulas and making a mess.
As peas and carrots rolled every which way on the flattop, I held on to a couple of calming thoughts: The sky’s not falling. Think of the OT hours.
Seventeen days ago, I had been a lowly kitchen hand hoping to get an inside look at what it was like to work at fire camp. Suddenly—and in rather unceremonious fashion—I’d just become the head cook for a federal disaster.
To be fair, this federal disaster was winding down. The fire, we’d heard, was almost under control.
For the final staff meeting, on day 19, we stood in a semicircle in front of the kitchen. Our restaurant was nearly demobilized, “demobed” in fire-camp parlance. The tents were down and the trailers were loaded. The job was almost done.
We’d started having mandatory all-hands meetings after the first-week breakfast shift when things began going off the rails. The managers would go on about teamwork and giving it your best effort. But this was a kitchen crew. We were a little too rough for that corporate-sounding nonsense. Employees would trade smart-ass comments and people would talk about the hours or what we’d heard about the fire’s progress or our rumored demobe date. At fire camp, management usually served as a commissary. During one lecture, they told us to stop taking so many smoke breaks. Someone immediately retorted that this wouldn’t have been a problem had they bought us packs of 100s as requested.
We had our good moments. I got revenge, for myself and the others, against the security guard. Days after the drug-dog incident, she reported to Overhead and the managers that she’d seen one of us walking around with a beer bottle beside the general store. Management sussed out that I was the suspect. I told the truth: It was a root beer, and if she’d politely asked, I would have told her. As the kids say, I had the receipts.
The next day, I bought a cherry Pepsi and the cashier said, “Oooh, don’t let [the security guard] see you with that.” Apparently, she specifically had the general store stock up on Pepsi Wild Cherry and considered them hers. So I bought the whole supply. I handed them out like a prince with parade alms. I put on a grin and had mine sitting at the service window when she came for her keto plate.
On day 19, as we gathered together beside our nearly sloughed circus restaurant for one last meeting, the managers read us the food-unit leader’s official evaluation.
“The food met contract standards,” it gushed. The managers read on.
“The whole Stewart’s crew were good to work with and very responsive … This Stewart’s crew worked long and hard with a smile … [The crew demonstrated the] ability to respond correctly to an unpleasant situation when they arrived.”
Ruby got a well-earned shout-out. “A leader and a team builder for the kitchen staff. She leads with a hardworking example and positive attitude. Thank you, Ruby.”
My reign as head cook on day 17 had been mercifully brief. About an hour in, Ruby actually returned. Josh showed up when we needed him most, moving like a sports car in fifth gear as he turned meat on the grill and in the tilt skillet. After dinner, Ruby and I talked it out some, and I understood better that she was dealing with responsibilities and issues I’ve never had to face, including being a woman in this working environment. Her lifelong frustrations were evident from the first time we met. When Josh and Ryan had bounded in on day three, one of them asked if they should put on chef’s whites. Ruby just shrugged. When she wears the white coat, she said, she’s assumed to be the help. “They never think I’m the chef.”
My aggressively slamming the counter on day 16 had also shaken her. It hadn’t occurred to me that my own physical outburst might have echoed the kind of violence she and other women have experienced in their lifetime. When the pressure was too much, I’d resorted to what I’d learned from an outdated world.
Ruby was a lot of things, but above all she was a true chef. Not the old kind, but the kind we need for a new normal. For one, she didn’t lead with the kind of braggadocio and rampant testosterone that’s the purview of the classic auteur-run restaurant Bourdain regretted glorifying in Kitchen Confidential. Ruby fought as hard for herself as she fought for those under her watch.
Overall, we got a three out of five. One of the managers said he asked the food-unit leader why, especially considering some of our struggles. “He said because we try our asses off.” While forever suspicious of official types, I’d thought there was no higher compliment than the old phrase good enough for government work.
And with that, our mobile food-service unit was officially demobed. The South Fire was contained enough that the only people staying on were mop-up firefighting crews. We caravaned out of the recreational heaven and drove five hours northeast to the base in Oregon.
End of Days
The team dispersed as soon as we arrived in Klamath Falls.
Some of the younger crew members crowded together just off the property and fired up perfectly legal blunts or puffed on fun-time vapes. The knife-tatted worker who first welcomed me to the circus seemed a little surprised when I told him my plans—he was just going to stay at the warehouse until the next call; even a motel was too much of an expense. We hugged it out.
I got an exorbitant $100-a-night hotel room, preceded by a detour to the liquor store for a sixer and a fifth of Fireball.
Inside my private quarters, I took a couple of shots, put on some basic cable, then stretched out on the large, clean bed and surrendered to privilege and luxury. I had about two hours before the meet-up downtown.
Employees were now free to do as they pleased but had to be available for a new call in 24 hours. We started drinking immediately and heavily, like sailors on leave.
Seeing everyone in their normal existence was jarring. We’d all worn the same blue Stewart’s shirt for 19 days; the women and I had all worn tight ponytails covered with nets. At the bar, everyone let their hair down, and dressed their personality. Rounds were ordered. Toasts were given. Naughty passes were made while games of pool were played. All was forgotten and all was forgiven.
I spent an extra day getting a cheap massage, drinking in peace, and eating a proper meal, then got the hell outta town, driving east, toward home and comfort.
Cooking is work I can always find and do with some pride. I feel most secure in kitchens: half-immigrant, mostly poor, nearly all of us in the weeds and trying our best to jerry-rig both self-preservation and collective responsibility regardless of criminal records, credit scores, and/or self-medicated health issues. These are the most essential components of being an “essential worker” in America today. The category stretches beyond traditional kitchens. There are the fast-food employees, the packaging-plant workers, the auto-managed delivery drivers—all doing part-time labor or gig work, always getting less and needing more.
Heading out of Oregon, the road east passed through parched lands and scorched forests on the way to tornado and hurricane country, all areas that would need more disaster catering soon enough. That was fine with me. I didn’t really care if our new normal meant producing foodstuffs for faceless entities and nameless victims. Let the world burn, I thought. Let it break. So long as we get the hours and plenty of OT.