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The business of wildfires: 'It's like we're profiting off a disaster, which is very upsetting'

November 19,2018 13:27

CHICO, Calif. – When Tom Greenwood started his wildfire support business 20 years ago, it was a seasonal gig. Not anymore. “It used to be two, three months that we were busy. Now it seems to be the new normal in California. There is no off time for the ...and more »



David Benda Redding Record Searchlight
Published 10:16 PM EST Nov 18, 2018

CHICO, Calif. – When Tom Greenwood started his wildfire support business 20 years ago, it was a seasonal gig.
Not anymore.
“It used to be two, three months that we were busy. Now it seems to be the new normal in California. There is no off time for the fire season,” Greenwood, the owner of Tom’s Equipment Rental, said Wednesday at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico. The fairgrounds also is housing the incident command center for the catastrophic Camp Fire.
Greenwood’s Orange Cove-based business about 250 miles away provides kitchen equipment so about 5,000 people working on the Camp Fire can eat each day.
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Tom’s Equipment Rental is one of many vendors that contract with state and federal agencies, bringing in air conditioners, chairs, generators, portable toilets, showers, staging, tents and lighting. They drive bulldozers to help cut fire lines and trucks that bring water to help firefighting efforts.
“It’s like we’re profiting off a disaster, which is very upsetting. That’s why we give back as much as we can,” said Teresa Lamb, who owns All American Tent Emergency Services in Corning with her husband, James. It's about 25 miles away.

The Lambs also are emotionally invested. Their oldest son is a bulldozer boss with the U.S. Forest Service and is working the Camp Fire.
Teresa Lamb teaches high school in Corning, but she takes a leave to help the family’s fire-equipment business if things get busy, like this year. Now she is pondering retiring from teaching to help her husband full time.
Her husband used to work in the timber industry but now runs the family business exclusively.
Since the Camp Fire started Nov. 8, California's deadliest and most destructive blaze in modern history already has cost $50 million to fight, according to National Interagency Coordination Center figures Friday. The Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California, which started the same day, have cost almost as much combined.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hasn’t broken down the money it spends on vendors, called support costs, but it’s a big chunk, and an important component to firefighting efforts, said Brendan Halle, a Cal Fire spokesman.
“It keeps us going, without a doubt,” Halle said. “To me, personally, it’s amazing the work they do. We will come in here and it’s nothing, and like in two days, it’s a mini boot camp.”
All American Tent and Tom’s Equipment, like a lot of vendors with state and federal contracts, have been working fire support since late May: July's Carr, July's Yosemite, July and August's Mendocino Complex, and now November's Camp Fire.
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Teresa Lamb ticks off the fires that her company has provided support: the Carr, Yosemite, Klamathon – all in July. Her company also worked 2017 fall fires in Napa and Sonoma counties.
"Oh my gosh, we started June 2, 3, 4, and we've maybe had a month off since," she said of the 2018 season.

Kevin Tozier, co-owner of Tozier’s Fire Equipment in Chico, said working fire camps is not a year-round job. But other parts of the job keep him busy the balance of the year.
“The preparation is pretty much year-round with the amount of stuff, with our own personal equipment we own to support the fires," he said. "It takes quite a long time to clean and service it and have it ready for next year.”
The Lambs started renting out party tents as a side business. But when they heard tents were needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they decided to help.
“We kind of got the fever,” Teresa Lamb said. “We decided that frankly that will help us, but also we wanted to help people. We went there with 10 party tents.”
In 2008, they went all in after providing support on a fire in Chico.
Pretty soon, All American was bringing in mobile laundry facilities, trailers, lighting, HVAC equipment and trucks hauling in gray water.
“We just started buying equipment. Everything we made we put back into the company. It’s been like that to build it up,” Teresa Lamb said.
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The business grew from Teresa and James to about 30 employees today.
She believes that 30 years ago, a business like hers could not be sustainable year round. She’s not worried about that today.

Next year, they plan to start supplying showers at fire camps.
Her husband recently went to Indiana to work with their vendor to help design the showers. Right now, they contract with another vendor if they need showers.
"We want to make it more convenient for the people who are working (the fires) so that they're rested, so they can help people," Teresa Lamb said. "I love what I do."
Because California’s wildfire season has expanded from the summer months, competition for vending contracts has increased.
Roger Cunnington, owner of El Dorado Water & Shower Services in Placerville, said not many businesses offered his services when his company was established in 1989.
“I think when the logging quit in small towns, people had to find something,” Cunnington said. So they looked at starting their own small businesses.
But Teresa Lamb isn’t so sure out-of-work loggers are her competition, though she does agree that loggers and timber-fallers are needed to do the cleanup and salvage work after fire.
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Tozier of Tozier’s Fire Equipment said it’s not hard to understand why the fire-support industry is growing.
“More fires, for sure,” he said.
Follow David Benda on Twitter: @DavidBenda_RS
Published 10:16 PM EST Nov 18, 2018

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