Crew at a portion of the Caldor fire in eastern California.

Supply chain issues that have been a fact of life this year for shippers and carriers are also confounding the efforts of thousands of firefighting crews stuck in the middle of an extreme wildfire season.

They are struggling to keep people, equipment and other resources moving to contain the blazes.

Serious long-term drought, along with triple-digit heat waves and very low humidity this summer, have made their jobs more challenging than usual, as have wind-driven blazes like the Caldor fire in eastern California that spread 15,000 to 20,000 acres in one day.

Related: Hours-of-service relief part of response to historic Minnesota drought

“When a tree torches up, it throws a lot of embers out into the system. With the fuels being as dry as they are, almost every one of those embers that lands in a fuel bed has started a fire,” Joe Reinarz, Forest Service incident commander for the Caldor fire, told FreightWaves.

Dozens of large wildfires, as well as tens of thousands of smaller ones, are still burning on millions of acres across the country. They started in April in the upper Great Lakes and the Dakotas, which Reinarz said is very rare that early in the year. Other fires out west soon followed.

“When we went into our real peak fire time of the year this year, we had so much fire on the landscape that it’s had a disastrous effect,” Reinarz added. “It’s something we haven’t dealt with in the past.”

With crews working a lot of overtime, including 24-hour shifts, they need more resources to battle the fires. This adds to the complexity of firefighting logistics.

Zeph Cunningham, logistics section chief for the Caldor fire, told FreightWaves that the Forest Service has a history of robust mobilization that has been challenged like no other time in recent memory.

“Typically we can mobilize people, resources, engines and helicopters within 24 to 48 hours. What we’re finding this year with the supply chain challenges we’re facing, it’s more like 72 hours,” Cunningham said.

Some fire crew members often fly commercial jets to their assignments and rent cars to get to their posts. However, airline fuel delays and lack of staffing, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have disrupted the process.

“The folks that we fly out here are constantly dealing with delayed flights,” Cunningham stated.

Previously, “they never had problems getting rental cars. This year there’s a major shortage of rental cars because the rental car companies are not able to buy new vehicles to put back in the system because of the COVID shortages in the supply chain,” Cunningham added.

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events. Caldor fire in eastern California, Sep. 14, 2021. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

Crew members already at fires have been going to pick up personnel arriving at airports. In other cases, arriving personnel simply have to wait for rental cars — several hours in some instances. Ride-sharing companies can’t get to many of the crews because they’re in remote areas and/or rough terrain.

Supplies like water, sports drinks and ice that vendors would normally bring directly to the crews are plentiful. However, the supply chain is broken because there aren’t enough drivers. This includes food from mobile caterers who have had a hard time finding employees due to COVID challenges.

“We had a food unit here in Northern California just a few weeks ago that could not get their wholesale food order. So we just took drivers and pickup trucks out of our supply unit and went and picked the food up from the vendor and brought it to the fire,” Cunningham explained.

The food units have fed up to 5,000 firefighters and support personnel at single fire sites, in some cases.

Confronting two disasters at once — a pandemic and an extreme fire season — is new for many crews. It’s taking more resources than normal to meet the logistical demand.

The only silver lining for Reinarz and Cunningham is that when the Caldor fire took off and began threatening multiple communities, it became the highest-priority fire in the country. When personnel and/or equipment became available, they were at the top of the list to receive them if necessary. But this only stretched thin resources from crews fighting large fires in other parts of California and several other states.

Forest Service leaders have been coordinating as much as possible with state and local crews to pull from one another’s resources when possible.

“If you send us the right resources at the right time, we can up that containment [of the fires] very quickly. That communication system is key to our success,” Cunningham said.

President Joe Biden recently surveyed some of the Caldor fire damage with officials from the National Interagency Fire Center. Over the past month, the fire has wiped out more than 200,000 acres, as well as 1,000 structures and homes. Air quality has been degraded and local economies stopped in their tracks. Nearly 200 people in the area have been forced to live in shelters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 33 Fire Management Assistance Grants to help Western states pay for the cost of fighting wildfires, and Biden has used the Defense Production Act to address a shortage in fire hoses. 

“Because of the pandemic, we found ourselves in a situation where there is a backlog in an awful lot of things. We restarted the idle production line in Oklahoma, bringing back to work and delivering thousands of new feet of new fire hoses to the front lines. It’s hard to believe: short on firehoses,” Biden said in a statement Monday.

In addition, Biden has tapped Department of Defense aircraft and hundreds of active-duty military troops on the ground to assist wildfire crews. The federal government is also sharing satellite imagery to help detect and monitor fire growth.

Biden mentioned that scientists have been warning for years that climate change-related extreme weather is going to intensify, and he said it cost the U.S. $99 billion last year.

“And this year, unfortunately, we’re going to break that record. It’s a devastating loss to our economy and for so many communities,” Biden added. “When we — when we fail to curb pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes and continue to use fossil fuels as we do, we increase [the] risk that firefighters face.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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