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

Page 5

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.