|Hot Shots stand in line while waiting for a catered dinner from Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering’s 53-foot kitchen in Arizona. (Photos courtesy of Mormon Lake Lodge.)|
|Shown are baby back ribs ready for serving to hungry wildland firefighters. Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering’s kitchen has steam ovens that will produce five hotel pans—allowing them to feed 100 people every three minutes.|
They are not what one might classify as traditional fire service vehicles. In fact, they are not fire trucks at all. Rather, the vehicles that Arizona-based Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering uses to respond to fire scenes are support vehicles that can feed hundreds of hungry firefighters in the field at the same time. The self-contained, self-sufficient vehicles are the brainchild of the staff at Mormon Lake Lodge.
The origin of Mormon Lake Lodge’s mobile catering vehicles can be traced back to when the lodge supported wildland firefighters during a 2003 Arizona wildfire. “At the time of the Packrat Fire in the Tonto National Forest near Clint’s Wells, Arizona, a lot of fires were burning in the west and all the caterers were extended all over the forest,” says Scott Gold, regional vice president of Forever Resorts, the parent company of Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering. “They had fire personnel come to our lodge and ask us to prepare dinners for about 90 firefighters and put them in to-go boxes. They also requested breakfast for the next day, and we said ‘sure, we can do that.’ ”
Gold says the lodge staff prepared breakfasts and lunches for a few days and followed up with a U.S. Forest Service representative who told Gold many of the firefighters were eating military meals, ready to eat (MREs) for dinner and other meals.
“We told the Forest Service rep that we had portable grills and tents and asked if we could go to the fire camp and set up in a spot where we could cook at the scene,” Gold notes. “She got it approved and we took eight people out there, set up a portable barbeque grill and a steam table under tents, and cooked breakfast and dinner for the firefighters. We still were preparing the lunches at the lodge.”
Gold and his Mormon Lake crew stayed at the fire camp for 11 days, feeding up to 200 people three meals a day. “Many of the firefighters told us our food was some of the best they ever had in camp,” Gold points out. Another caterer finally became available, and Gold’s crew was relieved.
Before long, the glimmer of an idea had coalesced in Gold’s mind. Later that year, he took his executive chef to another wildland fire incident and looked over the catering operation there. Gold and his staff became convinced they could develop a mobile catering service to rival anything currently offered. Within a year, Mormon Lake Lodge had secured a national catering contract.
Mormon Lake Lodge’s main mobile catering unit is a 53-foot-long semi-trailer that houses an all-stainless-steel kitchen facility with an Ansul fire extinguishment system. The equipment in the trailer includes 20 feet of flattop space with cabinets underneath, steam ovens that will produce five hotel pans of food (enough to feed 100 firefighters every three minutes), 16 steam tables to hold food that is accessed through four service windows, a 900-gallon potable water tank, a 500-gallon gray water tank that allows them to begin immediate service when they arrive on a scene, and two 1,100-gallon gray water bladders outside the trailer.
A second trailer, 48 feet long, serves as the refrigerated food preparation trailer. It’s a cold storage unit for perishables and includes stainless steel walls and tables and hand washing and vegetable washing sinks. Rather than prepare food (e.g., chop vegetables, bone chicken, or handle any raw food) in the kitchen unit itself, where the temperatures are high and bacteria can form on uncooked food, it is prepared where the temperatures can be kept down to 40 degrees, when needed, to keep the food fresh. “It’s much better than trying to do food prep in a hot kitchen,” Gold observes.
A third semi-trailer, measuring 53 feet, carries all the dry goods the catering service needs. There’s a section at the rear of the trailer for paper goods, rice, and all other types of dry products. The center section is used for storing the dining tent, tables, and chairs. The forward part of the trailer carries two generators that power the mobile catering facilities—60,000- and 40,000-watt units. Fluorescent lights can be clamped onto the top edges of all trailer units to provide scene lighting.
International and Freightliner tractors pull the three trailers.
The fourth major vehicle in the mobile catering fleet is a freezer truck with an 18-foot box built on an International chassis. The freezer truck pulls a 20-foot-long self-contained dish room that’s used to clean pots and pans used in cooking. Inside the dish room is a slide-out unit that holds eight sink hand-washing stations, designed to be set in front of the food service line.
Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering uses a Ford F-450 1½-ton pickup to haul a 40-foot-long gooseneck trailer with pop-up doors on both sides. The trailer serves as a salad bar, fruit serving station, and beverage station.
The lodge also built a 38-foot-long gooseneck trailer that serves as a bunkroom to sleep 14 personnel. The two-story unit has air-conditioning, a shower and sink, and a double-stack washer and dryer. Each cubicle has electric power and cabinet space. The trailer is pulled by a Ford F-350 one-ton pickup.
The operations manager, Gold’s brother Shawn, and supervisory cook Randy Hollingshead are housed in a Four Winds 32-foot-long motor home, along with accounting and human resources personnel.
Completing the fleet is a Ford F-450 service truck with a man-lift boom that is used to set the exhaust turbines on the kitchen trailer. The service truck carries a welder, air compressor, one-inch rattle gun for changing tires, and full-service welding torch.
Scott Gold points out that when the lodge’s mobile catering service was mobilized after Hurricane Katrina, it was placed at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and changed quite a few tires on fire service vehicles.
It was also the only unit on the scene with a grade two water and wastewater operating technician, Jim Sorgatz, the mechanic who operates the service truck. “The government had us test the water at the airport after Katrina to be sure it was safe to use,” Scott Gold notes.
Its Own Zip Code
In a fire camp, the mobile catering unit sets up like a small city. The kitchen has aluminum stairs and catwalks leading to the windows on the front side of the trailer. On the back side, slide-out catwalks link the kitchen to the refrigeration unit and the dry storage trailer so personnel don’t have to use stairs while carrying boxes.
The footprint of the area required for all of Mormon Lake’s units and gear is about 140 feet by 180 feet, but Gold says that’s a minimum amount of space. Typically, the crew sets up in about 50 percent greater space.
The dining tent that Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering sets up seats 240 at a time at folding tables and chairs, Gold says, “and we can turn them over every 20 minutes.” There’s also a staff recreation tent—a 19- by 25-foot western shelter system tent with windows and aluminum doors, a television, and a DVD player.
“We have potable water lines and gray water lines running everywhere,” Gold says. “We can set up anywhere, even in the desert, and function for days on our own.”
Depending on the size of the fire, the catering service typically will start out with enough food and products to feed 500 firefighters at an incident for two days before being resupplied. Most of the incidents that Mormon Lake responds to start out with between 350 and 450 personnel to feed, Gold says.
As part of Mormon Lake’s contract, the government supplies the catering operation with potable water during an incident and removes the gray water as necessary.
Mormon Lake Lodge Mobile Catering has seen service around the United States. It’s been dispatched to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after Hurricane Rita in 2005; Beaumont, Texas, in 2005 to feed 1,400 National Guardsmen; and wildland fire incidents all over the west, including Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, and California.
The longest that the mobile catering crew has worked a wildland fire incident was for 63 days in the summer of 2007 at the Rattlesnake Fire in Dixie, Idaho.
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.