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Sand Fire: Inside the 'camp in a box' pop-up city that wildland firefighters call home

The air had a taste of smoke in the background. Not as thick as a few days before, but noticeable nonetheless and a reminder of the Sand Fire miles away.

"This is what we call 'Camp in a Box'," Ralph Gonzales said, gesturing to a ring of 12 trailers situated behind Golden Valley High School outside Santa Clarita, where the Sand Fire incident command center hummed with activity.

People assigned to fight the fire affectionately refer to the high school grounds as "camp," which was established on Saturday morning hours after the Sand Fire escalated from a small brush fire near the 14 Freeway into a massive wildfire. It at one point threatened more than 10,000 homes and burned more than 37,000 acres — an area larger than the island of Manhattan.

Sand Fire

The camp is a home away from home for firefighters and support personnel. The length of their stay is largely dictated by how quickly firefighters can tame the blaze, and until that happens, camp is where they bathe, eat, sleep and try to relax in between 12-hour shifts on the front lines.

The ring of trailers comprises "Main Street." And like in any small town, "Main Street" is where you find the critical services that ensure day-to-day operations run as smooth as possible.

Gonzales, a fire information officer who fought fires for 10 years and was a member of Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team 3, pointed out the human resources office, the IT department and a finance office. Support, training and purchasing facilities stood out. At a nearby table, technicians serviced handheld radios, updated radio frequencies and replaced batteries. Not far away, the support office created operation maps that showed the day's firefighting strategy.

Naturally, one of the busiest areas was the dining area, where the scent of smoked pork tenderloin mixed with the wildfire burning miles away.

Beneath a tent, fire personnel brought boxes filled with lunches. Some traded lunch items. Teams held briefing meetings and some individuals found some alone time.

Latitude Catering and its affiliate Port-A-Pit Catering prepared dinner on Tuesday. The caterers, based in Tucson, Arizona, are just some of the countless vendors and contractors who provide essential services for the campers.

Gonzales said staff worked with cell phone providers, power companies and internet service providers to help keep the camp on the grid. Established contracts with vendors meant food and supplies were trucked in and laundry, shower and latrine facilities were set up quickly and efficiently in a tightly choreographed routine that has been practiced countless times before at other fires and emergency situations.

Past the shower trailers, where men shaved and women dried their hair, another vendor provides a chance for sleep.

With an office in Corona, the Mobile Sleeper Company brought trailers that sleep 42 people in bunks that line the trailer walls. An air filtration system purifies the air, and air-conditioning keeps the firefighters cool. To get a bunk, it's a first-come, first-serve reservation system run out of an adjacent trailer.

Gonzales said he slept in a trailer the past two nights, but on other fires he's pitched a tent just like scores of others have at the Sand Fire camp.

Along a small hill near the baseball diamond, rows of tents provide a place to sleep for others. A lucky handful found a place in the shade.

Somewhere between the pitched tents and rows of trucks and fire engines from Burbank, El Dorado, El Cajon, Monrovia, Breckinridge, Pasadena, Carlsbad and beyond, Samuel Dakwa and Quincy Hammons were making a supply run. It was the first camp experience for Dakwa, from Palmdale, and Hammons, from Lancaster.

They're members of the California Civilian Conservation Corps. Dakwa joined in January and Hammons joined in May.

At camp they've been supply runners, making sure water and food are getting to those who need it. They fill the coolers that dot the high school grounds with water and Gatorade. As part of the CCC, they also eliminate potential fuel sources for the wildfires and keep highway shoulders free from trash.

Dakwa said he admired the way the camp was run. He admitted, though, that using portable toilets lacked the comforts of home.

"Especially if you have to go number 2," he said.

This story has been updated.