The Mog Squad

by Matt Jenkins

The Great Basin in Nevada is brush-studded, rocky, sandy, nasty, snake-ridden, wind-blown, mercilessly tough country -- but above all, it's spectacularly flammable. In the wide expanses of sagebrush and cheatgrass, any wildfire with a little wind behind it moves fast and gets big quick.

Firefighters here tell stories of fires that have jumped across Interstate 80 without bothering to touch down in the median. They speak of fires so powerful that they create their own weather, of flaming dust devils that have stripped the mirrors off fire engines -- and of a highway patrol trooper who once clocked a blaze doing 65.

Mike Fettic is second-in-command of the Bureau of Land Management's fire station in Winnemucca, which is responsible for attacking fires on more than 8 million acres of federal land, an area bigger than Maryland. The highway patrol story, he concedes, may be apocryphal.

"But who knows," he says. "I've been driving down the freeway at 40 miles an hour, and the fire's just running along right next to me."

Things have always been done a little differently in Nevada, and firefighting is no exception. Fighting a forest fire in a place like Montana frequently requires an extended siege in which 20-person hand crews -- think of the old cartoons of Smokey Bear slinging a shovel -- cut fireline in an arduous process that can grind on for weeks. In Nevada, by contrast, standard operating procedure for a brush fire is to hit fast and hard in a heavily mechanized blitzkrieg.

But in a landscape that breaks axles, pops tires and can turn a fire truck inside-out like an overcooked knackwurst, what-in-God's-name kind of a machine could possibly rise to the challenge? Only, it turns out, one dreamt up by the same brilliant minds that brought the world spatzle, spicy mustard, and saucy Bavarian frauleins in low-cut dirndls slinging frosty mugs of Spaten.

For nearly 40 years, Mercedes craftsmen in the German towns of Gaggenau and Worth am Rhein have lovingly turned out a series of trucks that are the Teutonic wunderkinds of the BLM's firefighting fleet. The vehicles are called Unimogs, and they are some of the weirdest-looking machines to ever hit sagebrush country.

The Mogs are feisty, 15-and-a-half-ton, four-wheel-drive beasts that can plow their way through thick sage, squirt foam on a fire, and climb over just about anything in the Nevada desert. They have a central tire-inflation system that will keep their tires pumped full of air even if they've been punctured. The Mogs' fully independent suspensions let them crawl through the most rugged terrain and cling to even the steepest hillsides -- a phenomenon known in Mog-speak as "tweaking out."

But the Unimog's forte and most distinguishing characteristic is its ability to "cut" fireline with the two-ton plow blade mounted on its nose. By blading its way through sagebrush, a Mog can create a fireline across which a fire cannot burn and, eventually, corral the fire into an enclosure from which it cannot escape. The tactic is beautifully suited to the driest state in the nation, where water sources are few and far between.

"When you run out of water in a standard-issue engine, you're done," says Fettic. "When you run out of water in the Unimog, you can just put the blade down and keep fighting fire. You can just go and go and go."

Fettic recalls a thousand-acre fire not all that long ago, when several other engines had teamed up with the Mog he was running. "The fire was just kicking their ass, and they were out of water, and it was flaring up and taking off," he says. "We hadn't used a drop of water, so they came over and got water from us, and we just kept trucking around cutting line. Eventually, we got the whole thing lined and went home, and we still had two or three hundred gallons of water left."

In the taxonomy of BLM fire trucks, the Mogs are the rarest breed of cat. Of the roughly 500 fire engines the agency operates, only three are Unimogs. Yet they are the latest manifestation of a 40-year quest to create the ultimate wildland firefighting tool -- and that quest isn't anywhere close to being over.

Tucked deep within a warehouse at the sprawling National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the BLM's Equipment Development Unit. Carl Dorsey runs the unit, and it doesn't seem a great exaggeration to think of him as the BLM's version of Q, the dapper Englishman who was eternally devising the next great spy gadget for James Bond.

Dorsey's shop has either birthed or refined many of the BLM's extreme off-road projects, and photos of the agency's greatest firefighting hits adorn the walls of his office. Several experimental foam-shooting nozzles rest on top of a bookshelf, and tucked in one corner is a flip chart, on which someone has Sharpied a cartoon version of an engine known as the Wildland Ultra XT. 

Thanks to Smokey Bear, the Forest Service has better brand-recognition than the BLM when it comes to firefighting. But BLMers are almost pathologically proud of the fact that their land demands a radically different set of fire tactics. BLM country (which is to say 40-mile-an-hour fire country) is poor habitat for firefighters on foot -- or "tool swingers," as BLM engine crews are wont to call them.

"We fight fire quite a bit different than the Forest Service does," Dorsey says. BLM country, so the mantra goes, is engine country: "Most of our fire-fighting is basically off-road, and the Forest Service just doesn't have the need for that extreme off-road stuff."

That extreme off-road stuff does not come cheap. A fire-equipped Unimog costs over a quarter-million dollars; a Wildland Ultra XT, about $400,000. "But what it buys us out there on the fireline," Dorsey says, "is worth it."

And, in fact, the BLM's obsession with tricked-out fire trucks is driven by an ecological imperative to cold-cock every fire as soon as it's reported. "Let it burn" may be the environmentally enlightened cry in the national forests, but in Great Basin sagebrush country, the BLM is waging a desperate battle against cheatgrass, an invader from Europe and Central Asia that is turning the region's native ecology on its head.

Every time a fire breaks out, cheatgrass rapidly moves in to displace the burned sagebrush. The fine, dry grass makes each burned area even more fire-prone in the future, setting up a perpetual-motion invasive-species machine. All told, cheatgrass has seized hold of about a third of the Great Basin, giving much of the region a mottled, leprous look, and hastening the native sage grouse's journey toward a spot on the endangered species list.

"Cheatgrass is a rapid colonizer," says Mike Pellant, who heads the Great Basin Restoration Initiative. "It's held at bay until you have a disturbance like a fire. But once you get that disturbance, all bets are off." 

Still, the fight against cheatgrass merely lends one more rationale to the quest to build a bad-ass fire rig. "Most of our typical fire trucks are an over-the-highway truck with a four-wheel drive system put in it, and they were never truly designed for what we put 'em through," says Scott Johnson, a fire operations supervisor in Carson City, Nev. "We have to find a better fire truck, because we're just absolutely tearing the other ones up."

The BLM began the quest for a better truck in the early 1970s, with the Dragon Wagon, a huge eight-wheel-drive vehicle that could light and steer backfires by launching flaming napalm off one corner of its front bumper while spraying water off the other. In the years since, the Equipment Development Unit and various BLM districts scattered throughout the Intermountain West have deployed at least nine Unimogs, a dozen military-grade Hummers and seven Wildland Ultra XTs.

But besides the trucks that have made it into service, there have been plenty that flunked out. Eight years ago, the Equipment Development Unit had a brief dalliance with an Isuzu improbably named The Predator. The truck proved to be underpowered and prone to overheating, and it looked about as intimidating as something from Speedy Towing.

As Dorsey flipped through an envelope full of photos of the Predator, it suddenly became clear that the extreme off-road program was about more than just  the Mogs and Dragon Wagons and Hummers. Machines like the Unimog seem to exemplify a higher, √ºber-utilitarian aesthetic -- one that transcends the workaday uniformity of the BLM's standard-issue fire engines and insists that there is a place for a truck that, in every detail but its lack of racing decals, looks like an off-roader's wet dream.

Even grizzled fire bosses fall under the Mogs' spell. When the trucks are dispatched to fires outside Nevada, various chiefs and battalion commanders seem overwhelmed by the desire to see the Mog in action, and to see if they can be the person who finally assigns a Unimog to a task so gnarly that it fails.

"We've even showed up to fires where it's pretty much out," says Matt Croswait, a Unimog operator in Carson City, "but they're like, 'Oh, a Unimog! See if you can drive all the way up to the top of that hill.' "

"They see a blade, and they've heard stories about how good they are off-road," says Winnemucca Mog captain Mike McMaster, "and they just run with their imaginations."

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.

 

One recent morning, Peluaga is spraying down his Mog with a hose. A vaporous cloud of dust billows out from the undercarriage, carrying with it a pungent bouquet of crushed bitterbrush and sage, and a top note of Armor All.

Peluaga has spent more time behind the wheel of a Mog than any other working captain, and he tends to be pretty frank about the experience. "One thing I've noticed throughout my years of running a Unimog, is that just when it's running really good, when it's running top of the line ... it's gonna break down on you," he says. "When it's running really, really good, watch out: Something's gonna happen."

It turns out that to truly appreciate the singular beauty and utilitarian charm of the Unimog, you have to be willing to overlook the fact that (like certain pop stars) the machines tend to get hammered when they go out, and (like certain pop stars) they are, as a consequence, always skating on the edge of a total breakdown.

More to the point, the very nature of the Mogs' mission beats the living ScheiBe out of them. "When you're cuttin' line, it just thrashes those trucks from front to rear," says Mike Fettic. "With a standard engine, you just go out and jump in and take off to a fire, and then come back and park it. When you come back in a Unimog, the first thing you do is pull into the shop and get the (mechanic's) crawlers out and start looking around underneath."

Like Ikea furniture, Mogs come with their own funny set of tools  -- though this set weighs a couple hundred pounds, and invariably makes American mechanics beat their heads against the wall as they try to figure out which Schraubenschlüssel fits what Bolzen. And despite all the care lavished upon them, the Mogs are getting long in the tooth. In 2005, the Winnemucca office retired one of its three Mogs after nine years of service. "It was in bad shape," says Fettic. "The motor, the axles everything. It was just falling apart."

Now the two remaining Mogs under Fettic's command are, with increasing frequency, acting is if they are possessed. The turn signals on one work only when its headlights are on. The other's dashboard has twice burst into flame while the truck was en route to a fire. The same Mog once lost all six of its engine belts at once -- and, with no compressed air to shut off its engine, gave every indication that it was going to try to run forever. (Peluaga finally had to crack the fuel line to kill the engine.)

After this year's fire season, the newer Unimog in Carson City will keep soldiering on, but Winnemucca will finally bid its two remaining Mogs auf Wiedersehen.

Peluaga is waiting for a brand-new engine, an International fresh off an assembly line in Indiana. After eight years in the hot, pokey Mogs, he says that the prospect of driving to a fire at 80 miles an hour in cool air-conditioned comfort sounds just fine. Still, Peluaga allows that this is a bittersweet time.

For several years, he captained the Mog that Mike McMaster now runs. "If you talked to it nice, it would do good," he says.

Peluaga hesitates, unsure of how much more to say.

"I called it my princess. I'd rub the top of the dash, and I'd say, 'C'mon, Princess, c'mon!'
"And then we'd go."

As the remaining Unimogs are quietly ushered off the fireline, the Wildland Ultra XT -- the thing that had been markered up on the flip chart in Carl Dorsey's office -- will fill the void. Better known as the Tatra, the 28-ton six-wheel-drive beast is built in the town of Koprivnice, in the Czech Republic. The newest of the seven now in service with the BLM arrived in Winnemucca earlier this summer.

Mike McMaster is no Marina Orlova, but he's been bravely working to decipher the dokumentacni prirucka and various vystrazna znacka plastered all over the Tatra. And, he says, he's finally cracked the riddle of Czech etymology: "Grab a bunch of letters, shake them up, and throw 'em down. Now you've got a word."

But beneath its quasi-fluorescent, lime-yellow paint, the Tatra exudes a certain Soviet-bloc cool. Its captain, Scott Brandt, does too: With a few days' stubble and a pair of silver aviator's glasses, he's a dead ringer for a MiG fighter pilot or a Soviet tank commander. The two of us clamber into the Tatra's cab and clamp headsets atop our noggins so we can talk over the roar of the 400-horsepower engine; then Brandt fiddles with the joystick-mounted trigger that controls the water cannon on the front of the truck. 

When we roll out, the post-grunge band Tantric comes thrumming in through our headsets: Brandt's crew has patched a Sirius satellite radio receiver into the intercom system, giving the rig a 24/7, on-demand, go-anywhere sound track. (Nothing has revolutionized firefighting here as much as the advent of satellite radio. Before XM and Sirius, Peluaga says, the only options were "a fading country station and the spiritual channel.")

Brandt heads out past the edge of town to give me the Tatra dog-and-pony show -- which, as luck would have it, involves some actual dogs. As we growl down a dirt two-track, we come upon a guy walking a pair of border collies, Winnemucca-style -- by driving down the road behind them in his pickup.

When the dogs see the hulking Tatra rolling up behind them, they almost jump out of their skin, and then start barking furiously at us. Brandt laughs to himself and somehow squeezes his rig around the pickup and the dogs. Each of the Tatra's tires weighs a quarter ton, and could squish a collie -- or an inattentive firefighter -- like a cheese strudel. "You have to have everyone inside before you go," Brandt says, "because if you run over somebody, you're not gonna notice."

For now, the Tatra is the Next Big Thing in the BLM's extreme off-road arsenal. But the next Next Big Thing isn't far off.

Back in Boise, I asked Carl Dorsey if he had any special projects cooking. He looked stricken, and excused himself to use the restroom.

When he returned, however, Dorsey conceded that the Equipment Development Unit was, in fact, looking at a new possibility. It is a machine that goes by an acronym that would confound even the Czechs. "It's a vehicle," Dorsey said, "that, uh, the military is using."

The prototypes were funded in part by DARPA -- the defense department's R&D agency -- and have been reported to have hit 107 miles per hour. When I asked Dorsey what the thing looked like, he became cryptic. "It's kind of like a super rock-crawlin', something-you'd-see-down-in-Moab type of vehicle," he said.

On my way out of his office, Dorsey finally relented and dug out a couple of photos, which he said had been taken at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah. In them, the machine, painted in desert camouflage, is climbing a rock outcrop so steep that it seems the vehicle is about to peel right off of it.

"They claim it can go where you can't walk," Dorsey said. "And evidently," he added after a pause, "the special forces really like 'em." 

Matt Jenkins is a High Country News contributing editor.

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