travelog 31

Winnemucca Fire Department

At the access road two big signs with the listing of the 14 different resident churches welcome us. For a population of roughly 6000 people an impressive number of religious organizations. Winnemucca, named after a famous Paiute native American chief, is marked in our map but in reality it's only a Godforsaken hole, a rest area for the three big roads which pass through town. The town consists of aforementioned 14 churches, many gas stations and garages, motels, fast food restaurants and of course some inevitable casinos. There are slot machines even in the supermarkets so that daddy can pass the time with gambling while mommy's doing the groceries.

Winnemucca seems to be a dead city. The people who live here either work in one of the casinos or, like many Mexicans, in one of the surrounding mines which shut down because of the falling price for gold and the competition of Australia. The people who come to Winnemucca are passing through and need gas, a warm bed, and a shower.

It's already early winter in Nevada. The mountain ranges and the chain of hills are snow-covered. In the morning everything shivers with cold and trees, shrubs and grasses are covered with frost crystals. Everything glistens in the sun but it does not take long until the magic melts away. Nevada (from "nieve" = snow) pays tribute to its name. We endure temperatures as low as 8 Fahrenheit in the Northern part of the state.

The reason why we came to visit Winnemucca is the fire service. At the very beginning of our journey we heard from fire fighters at the East Coast of the US that there are Unimogs in the fire service fleet of Winnemucca. Since then we drove several times through the proximity of this town ("just around the corner" are many places for the Americans) but it was not until now that we manage to see this place.

Trusting to luck we ride up to the BLM (BLM = Bureau of Land Management) office building just out of town. There's not much going on here as well. The fire fighters seem to be on their well-deserved hibernation after the huge forest fires in the Western part of the US during the past months. We are introduced to the fire ecologist Mike Whalen. He tries to re-establish the native vegetation after a fire. He studies the more barren flora of Nevada as he thinks it was when the first white settlers arrived here around 1860. He knows all the native grasses and tries to prevent the distribution of non-native plants. In Nevada for instance a Sibirian grass (see picture) poses serious problems. Under good conditions this grass is able to sow itself three times a year. It only needs a few millimeters of soil and extremely low moisture to germinate. The native grass however sows itself only once a year and this only under ideal circumstances. It needs more soil and more rain to germinate than the Sibirian grass. Even though Mike is optimistic that his effort will be worthwile in the future.

The pride and joy of the BLM fire service are of course the Unimogs. Unfortunately the big U2450L (the same Unimog type as PocoLoco) is somewhere for service. This vehicle has been equipped with 1000 gallons of water and foam. Besides that the fleet consists of two U140 and some normal trucks and Ford pickups. Mike is enthusiastic about PocoLoco. He already had the idea of a well equipped Unimog with a cabin to transport the fire fighters very close to a fire. The responsible persons were not that taken with this idea and his plan was frustrated by the costs: a Unimog costs as much as four Ford pickup troop carriers which of course are only suitable for normal roads. A Unimog with its cross-country ability however could transport the fire fighters much closer to a forest fire. Nevertheless the team is now transported with the Fords and has to walk with the equipment about 2-3 miles from the road to reach the place of their mission. No wonder that they are already a little bit exhausted when they arrive at the fire. The increase in wage costs was obviously not taken into account with this solution.

During the fire season the fire fighters are busy day and night. They are often stationed for some weeks in the crisis area. In Winnemucca the fire fighters of the BLM are responsible for an area of roughly eight million acres. This corresponds with about 1/4 of the area of the state of Nevada. In addition the team helps in the neighbouring states of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Utah if required. They dig out ditches with the Unimogs to prevent the fire from spreading around. The drivers of the Unimogs are well trained. Mercedes Benz sends technicians from the factory in Gaggenau, Germany, to Winnemucca to introduce the team to the subtleties in handling and servicing Unimogs.

On the side Mike organizes the possibility for Russian fire fighters to work together for one season with an American team in Nevada. He speaks Russian and has put together a Russian-English dictionary with all the specialized expressions of a fire service.

Mike provides us with a list of other fire services in the Southwest of the US which drive Unimogs. So we say goodbye with the promise to come back soon. This is definitely not our last visit to this area but next time we come at a different time of the year when we don't wake up frozen stiff in the morning.

November 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen