The fact is, once you see a Unimog in action, it's easy to appreciate why they've become the stuff of legend.
The BLM's Winnemucca District can have long stretches of time when no fires break -- and then all hell cuts loose. "When we get hit, we get hit hard," says Sean Spence, who used to fight fire there. "We get a lot of fire."
Not long ago, I was in Winnemucca in just as one of the dry spells came to a dramatic end. For weeks, all of northern Nevada had seemed to positively incandesce, without quite bursting into flame. Then, early on an August morning, a rattle-your-chakra thunderclap rousted me from bed. By the time I stumbled out to the motel parking lot, the sage flats around Winnemucca had been transformed into a tableau of flaming devastation as three separate fires gobbled their way toward town.
The fires emptied the BLM station, and the dispatch center sent out a page for all available personnel. Twenty minutes later, I managed to catch up with two of the Unimogs as they tag-teamed a mile-long flame front that charged toward a subdivision on the east side of town.
The scene would have done Hieronymus Bosch proud. Caustic, eyeball-pickling sagebrush smoke and flurries of embers blew through the neighborhood, while panicked people led panicked animals -- horses, goats, sheep, even gerbils in cages -- to whatever vehicle they'd fit into. Behind the subdivision, wicked corkscrews of flame wound their way up powerline poles. The Mogs would disappear into the smoke and then occasionally re-materialize, growling like oversexed Tasmanian devils and churning up milky swirls of dust in their wake.
The comparison with Panzer warfare is unavoidable. The basic strategy -- which is such a fundamental tenet of firefighting here that Mog crews probably mutter it in their sleep -- is "anchor, flank and pinch": Anchor in at a safe spot at the tail of a fire, and then begin cutting fireline along its flanks until you can start corralling it toward the line being cut by the crews on the fire's other flank -- or toward a non-flammable rockpile, road, or anything else that will stop the fire's forward movement. Then pinch it off.
That morning, Fettic and another supervisor named Abe Tillman were simultaneously bouncing through the sagebrush in a pair of Chevy command rigs bristling with radio antennas, directing the fight. By 8:00 in the morning, the day already had a sinister feel to it: A fire engine from the local volunteer department got bogged down and was overtaken by flame just after the crew bailed out. Not long after, another fire began making a run toward a warehouse where a mining company had stockpiled its blasting explosives.
Every fire requires a tremendous amount of improvisation, and that day's fires were no exception. "You really gotta be flexible," Fettic said at one point, as he watched their progress, his radio in hand. "You can't be committed to any one thing for a long period of time. And you really have to watch your ass."
The fight against the fires turned into a running battle that ranged across several miles of desert around Winnemucca. The BLM crews had to keep switching back and forth between offense and defense modes as a string of thunder cells rolled through the area and blew fire everywhere. The tide finally turned only after the firefighters lit a series of massive backfires. Two of the Mogs ran in tandem, cutting line, followed by a firefighter firing off with a drip torch to burn out sagebrush ahead of the fire and starve it of fuel, and backed up with a set of BLM engines to catch spot fires. Ultimately, the firefighters managed to stop the fires without losing a house.
When there's a lightning bust, there are often more fires to fight than the BLM has engines. As soon as an engine is released from a fire, its crew refuels and tops its tank off with water, and heads to the next-highest-priority fire. Tony Peluaga, one of the Unimog captains, spent 22 hours straight in the driver's seat that day, and worked through the night on a series of three fires. By morning, his Mog was beat halfway to hell: Peluaga's speedometer was broken, his tachometer was on the fritz, and his tire-inflation system was totally kaput.