Each summer, thousands of firefighters devote long hours to putting out wildfires. At the end of each day, they retreat to camp a safe distance away where they can relax and recharge to be ready for their next shift. And also get fed. For the Mountain West News Bureau’s Faces Behind the Fire series, we talk to the man in charge of the kitchen.
Mike Kramer doesn’t leave cell phone range during wildfire season.
“When the phone rings it’s just like a fire engine. You can’t say, ‘oh wait, we’ve got to stop by the gas station, or I’ve got a flat tire.’ Everything has to be ready to go at moment’s notice.
Kramer owns Thunder Mountain Catering in Boise. It’s a full-service kitchen operation for big fire camps.
When he gets a request from fire dispatch, he and his kitchen crew are typically on the road within two hours, and are prepared to serve up to fourteen days of meals. His company provides dinners like New York Steaks, Angus burgers, spaghetti. The Mexican-themed fiesta night is a favorite with firefighters.
Kramer has been doing this kind of work for thirty years. There’s quite a bit of set up at the start of each job.
“Like when the carnival rolls into town and you have to set everything up,” Kramer says. “There’s times when we’ve rolled into a camp at 5:00 in the evening and they want dinner by 6:00 and we’ve been able to pull that off.”
But typically, set up takes a full 24 hours. His crew of about a dozen workers barely sleeps as they push to put up tents, chairs, tables, hand washing stations, salad bar stations and more for 500 or so fire personnel.
“That’s probably the roughest 24 hours that anybody will ever work,” Kramer says. “It’s almost like being on one of those crab boats.” There’s just no time for a break that first day, Kramer says. All the equipment is hauled to the site in semi trailers.
His truck fleet is currently parked in a big dirt lot in Boise. He has another full kitchen in New Mexico, awaiting a fire call.
Kramer and his cooks can serve two major wildfires at any given time in eleven western states. Kramer has already worked two fires this year -- one in Eureka, California and another in Colorado Springs. But for the most part, this early season is all about getting ready.
Kramer shows me the inside of one of his trailers, which is essentially a stainless steel kitchen on wheels.
“So this kitchen’s got 10 convection ovens, two massive deep fryers,” says Kramer, gesturing about the skinny but long space. He shows me two huge griddles. “These guys cook hash browns and pancakes on these pretty much every single morning.”
Kramer’s company is one of more than a dozen across the country that provide food for firefighters. He loves this work. He puts a lot of effort into making meals nutritious and enjoyable. And he appreciates the thanks he gets from firefighters.
“They come in, they’ve worked so hard, we give them large portions of good hot food and they just really enjoy having a hot meal and so it’s just very rewarding,” says Kramer.
Since he and his crew have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, this is a career that’s part adrenaline and part marathon. But Kramer likes the pressure. “I’ve never ever gotten a call and not gotten that meal out,” he says.
For now, this early season stage is all about being prepared. “We’re just staying ready. It’s all about staying ready and waiting for the phone to ring.”
Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.
Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.