The Mog Squad

The venerable -- and very German -- quest for the ultimate weapon against wildfire

  • Three Unimogs drop their plow blades to cut "initial attack" fireline near Winnemucca, Nevada.

    Matt Jenkins
  • Firefighters Chris Byrne, Matt Croswait, Chris Mason and Scott Johnson with a Unimog in Carson City, Nevada

    Matt Jenkins
  • Mike Fettic wrangles a Mog by radio as it attacks a fire in high wind.

  • A six-wheel-drive Tatra -- aka, Wildland Ultra XT -- tweaks out in a dry wash near Winnemucca

    Matt Jenkins
  • Carl Dorsey runs the BLM's equipment-development shop in Boise, Idaho.

    Matt Jenkins
  • A volunteer fire engine after it was burned over near Winnemucca in 2001.

  • Military-grade Hummers and Czech-built six-wheel-drive Tatras, shown here fighting a wildfire in Arizona, are just part of the Bureau of Land Management’s extreme off-road firefighting fleet.

    Courtesy National Interagency Fire CENTER

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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."