For some firefighters, California blazes don't disturb sleep

MERCED, Calif. — Joe Lee has seen firefighters all over town this week. "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 have 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 town in California's Central Valley underscores one of the differences when urban and wilderness fire agencies team up — something that is happening more and more often as homes are built closer to wilderness areas. The U.S. Forest Service sticks with tents; Cal Fire looks for the nearest city with enough empty hotel rooms.

"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.

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