Five days, 25 local volunteers and 2,800 lunches—that’s what it took to feed hundreds of firefighters battling the Haystack Fire south of Boulder last week and weekend.  

From Sept. 21 through Sept. 25, a dedicated group of volunteers from children to octogenarians convened at The River restaurant in Boulder to assemble sandwiches and pack hundreds of bag lunches for firefighters. By Sunday, a large national caterer arrived with the capacity to serve all the meals needed. But as remarkable and sometimes gruelling as the lunch-prep campaign was, that kind of community support and volunteerism seemed to be the norm in Boulder, not the exception, according to incident leaders.

The Great Basin Type-2 Incident Management Team 4, which assumed command of the fire on Sept. 22, wrote in an update on Tuesday morning that the fire, which started on July 30 and smoldered for weeks before exploding and racing toward Boulder this month, was about 16,189 acres and 41% contained. Red-flag warnings, indicating dangerous fire conditions, increased fire activity on Sunday and Monday, but cool temps, wind from the north and the possibility of a small amount of precipitation could slightly moderate the fire beginning on Tuesday, according to Incident Commander Tim Roide. 

“Moving forward, we are supposed to get a spit of rain but not enough to have much effect. We feel it’s important to continue to work on the east side of the fire,” Roide said in an interview on Tuesday morning. “We’re in a position to do some firing in the northwest corner to minimize further spread to the north … to Basin and the I-15 corridor.”

About 442 personnel were working the fire on Tuesday, and Roide, who hails from Carson City, Nevada, said that number would remain steady for the foreseeable future, as crews carry out a long-term strategy of building containment lines around the fire and, when possible, back-burning fuels between containment lines and the fire front. The fire won’t be out, he said, until a season-ending event—generally a significant snowfall—that likely won’t come until sometime in November. The team will stick around until then, he said. 

Before landing here last week, Roide and his team crisscrossed the West this fire season, sometimes venturing well beyond their home turf in the Great Basin, where this year was so dry that there was little fuel to burn. They started with a fire in Utah’s La Sal Mountains east of Moab, then went to the Kootenai range before heading to the Parley’s Fire between Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah. Then it was off to the Bull Complex fire near Oregon’s Mount Hood. That was their last incident before making the trek to Boulder. 

When the team moved into incident command at the Jefferson County Recreation Park and took command of personnel that peaked in number at about 460 last week, there was a problem: The contracted caterer—a smaller outfit than needed because no larger caterers were immediately available—couldn’t feed everyone.

“Those caterers ... really take pride in what they do, but 400 is a lot of people to feed,” Roide said.

That’s where Greg Hughes, the owner of The River, stepped in. Hughes coordinated buffet meals for firefighters working the Gatlin Gulch Fire south of Boulder in August, Hughes said, so the initial caterer last week knew who to call for daily lunches, made one day ahead, for last Wednesday through Sunday, before a larger caterer arrived.

“They needed us to provide lunches, if we were willing to. Of course I said yes. [The caterer] said, ‘Well I haven’t told you how many.’ I kinda joked and said if it’s 50 or 500, we’ll do it. We’ll figure the details out later and let’s get going,” Hughes said this Tuesday. 

Short-staffed and trying to keep his restaurant open, Hughes also lacked the capacity to produce thousands of extra lunches, crafted to specific nutritional standards, in just five days. But he had something the caterer didn’t: about two-dozen dedicated, local volunteers willing to sink hours and days into getting the work done. 

Hughes got the food order only about 24 hours before he had to deliver the first round of 400 sandwiches, he said, and a regular customer helped get a refrigerator trailer dropped behind the restaurant. Two rush deliveries of food arrived on Sept. 21, just as extra rooms in The River were transformed into sandwich and lunch mass-production lines. 

Headed by Boulder resident and prolific volunteer Cheryl Haasakker, a rotating cast of at least 25 volunteers built sandwiches and packed lunch bags. Haasakker arrived at 5:30 a.m. each day and didn’t leave until 9 p.m., she said. Hughes said some volunteers, including 78-year-old Ed Peterson, worked full eight-hour days, while others managed to work a few hours where it fit in their schedules. Haasakker said many, including the Ahlers family with three children, worked multiple days. They started with 500 lunches on Sept. 21 and, by Saturday, produced 950 in a day.

“This community stands out from most, if not all, of the communities we worked in this summer,” Roide said. “It’s more meaningful to do this line of work when you have support of the community.” 

Nick Howell, the team’s public information officer, said, “this community, I am really impressed with how supportive they are. They’re really open to what the plan is and they understand the natural resource side of the fire and they also understand the values-at-risk side of the fire. They seem to be really informed and polite.”

Haasakker said she worked the long days simply “because I believe in giving back to my community. Whenever I see a need, I jump right in.” 

Hughes felt similarly: “It was needed, and, as I told [the caterer]—she asked me, are you concerned about being able to fulfill the orders—and I said absolutely not. It will be a challenge, but we will get it done.” 

As Haasakker said this Tuesday, “We knew that if we, the townspeople, didn’t do it, then they wouldn’t have had it.”

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