With Hydraulic Skillets and Enormous Toasters, OK's Caterers Feed the Fight Against Forest Fires

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is a late-summer pattern familiar to the American West: lightning strikes, followed by erratic winds setting ablaze hundreds of square miles of timberland. Over the past two and a half weeks, more than 600,000 forested acres have been blackened. While the crisis appears to have eased, this has been the worst fire season in a decade, requiring the services of virtually every trained forest fire fighter in the U.S. (supplemented by National Guardsmen and prison inmates). As of last week, three fire fighters had died.

Battling fires is bone-wearying work—not only for the fire fighters but for those who support them behind the lines. The principal need, aside from sleep, is nourishment: The U.S. Forest Service stipulates that fire fighters get a robust 8,000 calories a day. To feed the estimated 22,360 people battling the recent fires took no fewer than 25 Western food purveyors. The largest of these caterers was OK's Company in Seattle, which began in 1967 as an outgrowth of an established food distributorship run by several generations of the Keener family. While their jobs are not life-threatening, OK's staff worked longer hours than the fire fighters themselves. Correspondent Meg Grant recently accompanied an OK's crew into the forest-fire zone.

John Keener gets the call from Boise Interagency Fire Center at 5:15 a.m. Monday. Two hundred acres are burning out of control near Cave Junction, Ore., in the Siskiyou forest near the California line. Required immediately: a field kitchen, showers and toilet facilities to support a minimum of 200 fire fighters for perhaps 10 days.

Within 45 minutes Keener's sister, Katy, 38, and colleague Howard Sonnichsen, 29, are on the road from Seattle to the fire site, more than 500 miles away. They will set up field operations while John, 54, stays behind to direct the complex logistics by phone. By 9 a.m. five big semis loaded with equipment and supplies are rolling from locations as far apart as Seattle and Reno.

As OK's eight-person crew assembles at Cave Junction (pop. 1,140) that evening, smoke from the fire 12 miles distant can be seen; by nightfall this blaze has spread to nearly 1,500 acres. The first task for OK's crew is to set up two-man tents that will be their homes for the duration. Their next job is unloading the semis, starting with the 32-foot refrigerator-freezer trailer, which is stocked with boxes of vacuum-packed steaks, frozen chickens, crates of apples, 50-pound bags of onions, gallons of syrup, liquid margarine and cartons of disposable trays and utensils. Perishables like milk and produce are stocked at the last minute. After unloading, the kitchen is readied. A 40-foot trailer, the kitchen is equipped with five-foot griddles, gas-rotary toasters, giant ovens and steam tables.

The kitchen crew works through the night. First, they prepare the next day's lunch, which is packed in plastic bags for distribution immediately after breakfast. Into each bag go cold-cut sandwiches, granola and candy bars, an apple, a can of fruit juice, condiments and a stick of gum. Some members of the kitchen crew are able to grab an hour or two of sleep, but others already are setting up breakfast, to be served from 4:30 to 10 a.m. as the fire-fighting shifts come and go.

Though they have had little rest, OK's crew members remain relentlessly cheerful. "We think a big part of our job is keeping up camp morale," explains Katy Keener, who says staff members have been known to don fake mustaches while serving—anything to keep the fire fighters smiling.

Everyone on the serving staff is recruited from a 250-name call list maintained by OK's and, under federal regulations, each is paid $6.61 an hour plus time and a half for each hour over 40 worked per week. (Most fire fighters make $7.50 per hour, paid by the Forest Service.) But no one goes to a fire for the money. "It's fighting the good fight, with everybody working real hard and all on the same side," says OK's crew member Annie Yanda, 38, a caterer in Yreka, Calif. "It reminds me of the protest days back in the '60s."

The camp food is not gourmet fare, but it is hearty. Tuesday night's dinner, which starts at 4:30 p.m., features steak grilled to order with sauteed onions, rolls, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, chili, pie à la mode and an unexpected touch: a salad bar. Dinner service goes on until 3 a.m., an hour and a half before the cycle begins anew with breakfast.

Later that week the OK's crew was reinforced and resupplied to handle a fire-fighting force that grew to 1,450. As of last week, however, the fire at Cave Junction was gradually coming under control. When the fire is out, OK's weary crew will break camp to go home and await the next call from Seattle, if not this year then surely next.

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