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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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."