They’re at the hotel, in the restaurants, says the visiting Texas businessman. They must be having a convention or something. But it’s conflagrations, not a convention, that made Merced a magnet for thousands of on-call firefighters in recent days.
While U.S. Forest Service firefighters battle fires in remote areas and sleep on cots or the ground in camps near firelines for weeks at a stretch, California state firefighters, usually protecting structures (and represented by a labor union) work 24-hour shifts — then head for a hotel.
The influx of freshly showered firefighters downing shrimp-and-steak dinners in this Central Valley town is what happens when urban and wilderness fire agencies team up — something that is happening more and more often as homes are built closer to wilderness areas.
When wildfires threaten development — such as the recent Ponderosa Basin fires creeping towards Oakhurst and Mariposa — the agencies work together. But they don’t sleep in the same place. The Forest Service sticks with tents; Cal Fire looks for the nearest city with enough empty hotel rooms.
It can be a boon to local economies, and a (mostly) good-natured bone of contention between firefighters.
“Real firemen don’t sleep in hotels, even on their day off,” says a retired Forest Service firefighter who answers the phone at a U.S Forest Service office in North Fork, but declines to give his name. “Real firemen don’t drive two hours for fun and frolic, a pool and a Jacuzzi. They sleep and eat at camp.”
Trudy Tucker, spokeswoman for Sierra National Forest, is more diplomatic about the different accommodations.
“It’s because of the different lands we manage. It’s hard to find a hotel in the middle of the wilderness, and where are you going to put a fire camp in a city?” she says.
“Our guys do tease. But the truth is … when a fire is creeping down to Oakhurst or other homes, we sure like to see those red and yellow and white trucks joining our green ones. It doesn’t matter if their firefighters go sleep in a hotel.”
Merced was the closest city to the Ponderosa Basin fires — which so far have burned almost 4,500 acres — with enough hotel rooms to house hundreds of firefighters. It’s an hour to the fire camp and another hour to the fires.
There are fire engines and trucks in almost every hotel parking lot.
For a week, more than two dozen rooms at the Vagabond Inn were taken by firefighters.
One night, the Denny’s next to Highway 99 — already the eighth busiest Denny’s in the country, according to Eric Pacheco, whose family owns the franchise — served 60 firefighters at once.
“They all ordered steak and shrimp,” he says. “Or T-bones.”
Maria Saldana, 25, a hotel clerk at the Hampton Inn, says her girlfriends have been abuzz about the firefighters — who are mostly young and male.
“But I’m always working, so I only see the ones who need a shower and to go to sleep.”
Karen Baker of the Merced Visitor’s Bureau says the firefighters rented more than 2,000 rooms over the past two weeks — $154,000 in revenue.
“Restaurants, gas stations, laundromats, drugstores, all that sort of thing also benefited,” she says.
Like a lot of towns, Merced has been suffering in the bleak economy. Sales tax revenues were down 8.3% in the first quarter of the year, the state Board of Equalization says. Summer usually is the busy season for this Central Valley town on the corridor to Yosemite National Park.
“But tourism has slowed down a lot,” Baker says. “The firefighters helped us. And everyone was thrilled to have them here. They all worked so hard.”
The city and county firefighters on multi-agency strike teams from across the state came prepared with tents and cots, but were folded into Cal Fire’s city way of doing things. They were sent to sleep and eat in Merced.
San Bernardino fire Capt. David Allen, freshly showered and wearing shorts and a casual T-shirt, is on his way from the Merced Ramada to dinner.
“We were shocked,” Allen says. “We went to the fire line, and when we came off our chief said ‘hotel.’ We’ve been working 24 hours on, then coming here and eating at Applebee’s. You sure get a better night’s sleep in a hotel bed.”
Tom Hammer, a captain with San Bernardino County Fire, says this is the first time in 31 years that he has spent a night in a hotel while assigned to a fire.
“By golly, we were surprised. But we aren’t complaining,” he says.
At Applebee’s, there are two large tables of firefighters, a lot fewer than earlier in the week when they packed the entire restaurant. Their numbers have been dwindling as the fires grow more contained and firefighters are reassigned to other blazes in California.
“That first night, all the girls were saying, ‘I want that table — I want that table.’ Because, of course, firefighter equals hot,” says waitress JaLynn Klups.
“I’m pregnant. I’m married. I went home and told my husband that I felt so left out of all the fun.”
But after two weeks of waiting on firefighters, Klups is pretty sure her colleagues’ flirting was for naught.
“They are really, really tired when they come in here. And they’re on the buddy system, because they’re on call. They told me they have to travel in twos and be ready to head back within 10 minutes.”
She says firefighters are good tippers and order a lot of steak and shrimp.
Few have said they were headed home when they say farewell — they’re headed to other wildfires in the state.
If they end up working a wildfire threatening structures, on a team managed by Cal Fire, they’ll keep sleeping in hotels and eating in restaurants when they’re off the line.
“There’s so many fires everywhere,” Klups says. “I wonder which city gets the firefighters next?”