Forest Fire Camp Developments

B Marsden (bio)

In 1955, Mark Stump records "Our campsite on the crest of the ridge became quite strung out as each man selected a tree to provide stability from the downslope side. One could lie "along the slope" or preferably "across the slope" in reasonable comfort as long as there was a decent sized tree to rest against, thus ensuring you would still be there at daylight."

As smoke billows on the horizon and the ‘call to duty’ messages fly its ‘action stations’ for forest firefighters. Through long hot summers crews remain prepared and ready to meet the challenge of stopping a developing inferno before forests are lost, and rural properties face destruction. A fire may run its course for several days, or sometimes for weeks or months. Fire crews and their support staff will need to be fed and provided with sleeping quarters and ablutions facilities, often in some of the most remote parts of the State.

This is an account of the many changes that have been introduced in Victoria to provide improved conditions for fire crews at base camps. Many of the changes were incremental in nature, but in 2000 the Department of Sustainability and Environment, with OHS in mind, directed a team to investigate current trends for providing meals and accommodation for fire crews and, as a consequence, a modular and containerised system was introduced, as you will see in each section of the article.




Transport by container trailer
Source: B Marsden


Cooking Units - Large Fires

For large scale fire camps, mobile kitchens fitted with gas appliances were used by the FCV and its successor agencies for the preparation of meals for fire crews. ‘Coppers’ also played a significant role in providing water for the kitchen hands to wash pots and pans during and between shifts. (Fig. 1)

Cooking Units - Small Fires

If, however, the emergency was, or was hoped to be, a small event – say a fire crew was despatched during the day to round-up a lightning strike - then in the cool of the evening a small camp trailer with an Aldershot oven and ancillary cooking utensils would be used to prepare the evening meal. The Aldershot oven was constructed of a steel top plate and three enclosed sides, with an opening at one end for the placement of wood. (Figs. 2 & 3) The lid or cooking area was fitted with a chimney at the enclosed end and in some situations a removable 150 mm disc in the middle for large urns or kettles for boiling water. The Aldershot ovens were perfect for providing a quick meal; such as barbecuing steaks and heating and cooking pots of vegetables.

Catering Trailer

Catering trailers also provided camp cooks with the tools and equipment to deliver a good meal for a small crew. The trailers were equipped to allow a cook to be quickly despatched to a field location and commence preparation of meals. (Fig. 4) Heavy-duty ‘Mess’ tents fitted with flyproof netting walls provided relief for the crews during meal time. (Fig. 5)

Food Storage

In the period prior to refrigeration becoming a common feature at fire camps,the ‘Meat-Safe’ and, if available, blocks of ice were the methods used to safeguard meat and food stuffs from heat and flies. The meat-safe was a light-weight metal container approximately 600 x 600 mm square with a hinged door and internal shelf. The container was perforated with hundreds of small piercings that allowed air to pass through but not flies. The meat-safe would be hung in a cool shaded area that preferably would get a breeze and be covered with a wet towel which helped to cool the contents. (Fig. 6) The occasional kerosene refrigerator may have been seen at a fire camp during this period but, in most situations, it was generally a very basic operation.

Refrigerator Trailer

In 1982 a large, ex-Military refrigerator was purchased by the FCV, and mounted on a tandem trailer frame to allow transfer to camp locations. The refrigerator was powered by an 8 KVA generator. It weighed 1.820 Kgs. (Fig. 7)

Mobile Kitchens

In the 1950's the FCV owned at least one ex-miltary cooker (Fig. 8) equipped with a steam boiler to heat food. By the late 1960’s to the early 80’s, the FCV owned and operated two models of 18 foot kitchen vans, the Mobil Trail and the Franklin. In the late 1980's an ageing Mobil Trail model would be auctioned off (Fig. 9) and replaced by a newer and more functional kitchen, manufactured by Brimarco Industries, a Ballarat firm. (Fig. 10) During this period the Franklin mobile kitchens manufactured during the early 1970’s were undergoing refurbishment at the Altona Fire Protection Workshop. (Fig. 11) The Franklin and Brimarco Kitchens were operated for a further number of years until being auctioned-off in late 2000, with the introduction of a modern Containerised Kitchen System.

Mobile Cool Rooms

Mobile Cool Rooms were initially purchased and introduced by the FCV in the early 1970’s. If additional Cool Rooms were required then more would be hired commercially if available. (Fig. 12)

Fireline Meals

It would be rare for a vehicle to be traversing the fireline with someone handing out a welcome meal from a hot box. If such a situation did occur you were a very lucky firefighter. Generally what food you left camp with in the morning was your meal for the shift. A ‘hot’ meal was more likely to be the result of it sitting in a hot vehicle cabin, or in a backpack against a tree on the fireline in the heat of the day. I can still vividly recall the smell of an open can of ‘hot’ Camp Pie or Bully Beef with the fat around the inside of the lid. I think there must be quite a few cans of this "food", and of Rice Cream, awaiting discovery in the forest where it was discarded by more than one exasperated crew member (Fig. 13)

Drinking Water - Canvas Bags

The canvas water bag was the earliest means of providing drinking water for forestry workers and fireline crews. Each vehicle would generally carry at least one full waterbag on the front of the vehicle for drinking purposes, and crews would carry additional waterbags when necessary to keep hydrated during a shift. When a new water bag was issued it would require soaking prior to use to allow the fibres to expand and create a seal to reduce leaking. The outside of the bag would remain damp during travel which would assist with cooling as air passed over it. The exterior of the water bag would become covered in a thick layer of heavy dust particularly on bush tracks where vehicles may well be travelling in tandem. A quick rinse of the water bag outlet when required, and a crew member could quench his thirst and be on his way. No time to complain about the ‘baggy’ taste, or whether or not the water came from pure mountain stream. It was water - drink up and get on with it! These were a sign of the times and of how fire crews operated. (Figs. 14 & 15)

Drinking Water - Portable Backpacks

Portable Backpacks replaced the Canvas Bags in the 1980’s. They consisted of a 1000 denier corduroy outer bag housing a replaceable inner bladder - thus providing personnel with a comfortable and easy to carry 4.5 litre drinking water receptacle. The outer bag could be easily cleaned at the conclusion of operations, while the inner bladder could be discarded and replaced when required.(Fig. 16 )

Container - Kitchen

The kitchen has a stainless steel interior, within a standard ISO 6 metre shipping container, that hydraulically folds out to occupy an area of 6 by 6 metres . It can cater for in excess of 400 people with three hot or cold meals a day (Fig. 17) Compare this with a "kitchen" from about 1985. (Fig. 18)

Container - Cool Room

This consists of a modified 6 metre refrigerated container, fitted with a 3.6 metre by 2.1 metre cool room, large chest freezer with the remaining area as a dry store. Containers can be positioned end to end to allow staff to walk between them.


Fig. 1 FCV Crew being fed from a Wiles Mobile Cooker at Carpendeit
Source: B Marsden


Fig. 2 Two Aldershot ovens and copper in use at a fire camp
About 1983
Source: B Marsden


Fig. 3 Basic cooking set up for a small crew.
Probably mid-1970's
Source: B Marsden


Fig. 4 Catering trailer setting up at a fire camp
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 5 Heavy duty canvas mess tent with fly wire walls - introduced 1982
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 6 Meat safes - widely used before refrigeration
Composite photo prepared in 2020


Fig. 7 Large trailer mounted refrigerator ex. Military
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 8 Mobile Kitchen - ex. Military
Source: M Cecil


Fig. 9 An early Mobile Trail Kitchen Van
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 10 A Brimarco Industries Mobile Kitchen
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 11 Franklin Mobile Kitchen
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 12 FCV Mobile Cool Room
About 1975
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 13 Camp "food" - still around in early 1960s and maybe later
Composite photo prepared in 2020


Fig. 14 Standard canvas water bags on tanker
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 15 Large hanging canvas waterbag at North Altona Museum
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 16 4.5 litre drinking water backpack with replaceable bladder
Photo: B Marsden


Fig. 17 Large containerised kitchen with a hydraulic fold out expansion wall
Source: B Marsden


Fig. 18 Early lightweight canvas tent kitchen - introduced 1982
Photo: B Marsden