Fire Camp

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(above: actual picture of our campsite)

What Your College Degree Will Get You: Temp Jobs and Lots of Debt

We are proud and humbled to announce that our relentless job search finally paid off, and we were employed college graduates for eleven days. After a week of annoying the PeopleReady in Seattle (despite truck probs) to no avail, then suffering through the approximately 120 degree summer swelter of Redding, California – a town filled with sexist mechanics and sporting a YMCA that openly boasted of its contempt for the homeless and anyone  unable to pay ten dollars for a shower – a light became visible at the end of the tunnel. His name was Shan. He was thoroughly pissed off with literally everything about his job at PeopleReady. But he was ready for people.

Within a day of re-filling out all the paperwork by hand that we had already submitted online and watching safety videos about chemical safety notices, Patrick was lifting sheet metal for 8.5 hours, just as his sociology degree had promised. Meanwhile, I was reading a graphic novel biography of Malcolm X at the public library when Shan hit me up with an offer as well: Fire Camp was calling, and we had to go.

The Modoc July Complex was the largest wildfire system in the world by the time we arrived at camp on the evening of August 1. It was comprised of 72 fires in northeast California, and over two thousand firefighters from American Samoa to the Big Island to Alaska had been called in to aid in its containment. The drive up sent us through a smoky highway with a bright red sunset and fire red-lined setting, and when we arrived at Fire Camp, an even more dystopic scene came into view. Tents were scattered about the cleared area, and dirt was kicked up into the air with every step; firefighter units traversed the area from trailer to trailer, where goods and services such as laundry, first aid, and showers were provisioned as the world was literally going down in flames (it was a disaster area after all).

After struggling to find the check-in, we finally arrived at the trucks and trailers labeled “Zee’s Catering,” where we were quickly thrown into the not as literal fire of feeding thousands of people with a staff of approximately twenty-five. While Patrick got thrown onto the task of filling drinks, I was assigned to be “micromanaged to death” (RIP Louis) by running for the salad bar. At the time, it was a structure-less system where my already incoherent counterpart and I were expected to grab literally every ingredient for the salad chef, who refused to make backup salads, while also making sure salads didn’t run out, all while hundreds of people flocked into the food tent to eat. After three hours of that frenzy, we also had to chop fruit until 2:30am and were expected to be at work at 5am to serve breakfast the same morning, followed by a complete teardown and re-set up of the massive food tents and trucks so that we had more room to accommodate the growing number of firefighters.

Needless to say, I quickly discovered that the salad ladies’ inability to handle stress, combined with their severe lack of sleep always resulted in a loud shouting match of blame, misunderstanding, and asking me to get a manager to sort out every little issue. By the second day, I was more emotionally exhausted than physically exhausted despite the average three hours of sleep we had accumulated. But in a turn of both misfortune for them and fortune for me, the salad ladies had to take the weekend off to go to a funeral. As soon as their temporary replacements (Estevan, Trish, Steve, and David) rolled onto the scene with their radical idea of always having extra salads on hand, things magically began to work, with the exception of Kenny (some dude in charge of logistic stuff for firefighters) insisting that everything always needed to be refilled and the infamous breakfast incident where an entire table of food fell over while I laughed and ran away. It was around this time when I realized that my smooth and strategic days of running salads was coming to an end. The salad ladies would soon return with their shouting matches and emotional abuse. And so we vied for the only available option that would get us the goods: collective action.

As Patrick once mentioned, we had never experienced a situation where capitalists relied so heavily on our labor in our lives. With two brief conversations, I was quickly moved to the kitchen where I could serve food and wash dishes happily without being excessively yelled at for failing to do the work of three people within a system that didn’t exist in the first place. The company was so understaffed that they could have used my efforts just about anywhere. Our final thoughts were that if ever there was a place to conduct an effective walkout strike, this could be it. While that would require more long term organizing and working around/with more senior workers who swear company loyalty, if we ever find ourselves back at Zee’s, I can say it would definitely be worth the effort to receive higher wages and more healthy hours and work environments. While California’s minimum wage is $10.50, and we were paid both OT and double time for our 16 hour work days, the company was making approximately thirty dollars per meal, serving hundreds, if not thousands, of people per day and could definitely afford to reward its workers for giving up their entire lives for the four month fire season, considering we were literally living at work and being woken up by our managers at 4:45 in the morning (analysis brought to you partly by college degree, but mostly by common sense and reading books (i.e. not worth the debt)).

Organizing thoughts aside, Fire Camp became a lot more enjoyable with my new position, and things became less stressful as the fire became more contained and more people were sent home, making for smaller and shorter meal times. However, my favorite part of the experience came with my brief assistance at the drink station with Patrick and Alfonso, as we creatively labeled the juices, not limited to Purple Drank, Strazzzzzzzz, Ice-T (explicit), Sucka Punch, and 100% Not Guilty (OJ). The firefighters were amused, and many pictures were taken.

Eleven days later, our bank accounts have been replenished, the fires are over 90 percent contained, our bruises and blisters are half-healed, we are still not caught up on sleep, and I feel five years older. Yet we may just rejoin the Fire Camp scene next year, as it was an experience like no other that would allow us to not have to work for the majority of the year. Until then, we now depart to see some big trees and find places to park the truck camper in the Bay. Hit us up if you are in the area and have recommendations or want to hang!

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From Seattle, with Lenin.

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