Entrepreneurs follow fires
By Aaron West, The Triplicate August 24, 2015 02:30 pm
Above is a sampling of wildfire T-shirts being snapped up by first-responders at the Gasquet Complex wildfires. Del Norte Triplicate / Aaron West
Firefighters, homeowners among the first to buy commemorative shirts
As wildfire season heats up in Northern California and elsewhere, so does an industry that’s sprung up around the fighting of the fires — selling T-shirts and other merchandise to the men and women fighting the blazes.
“Do you have any hats left?” Firefighter Dan Cano asked Brandon Rands Wednesday at Rands’ T-shirt printing trailer outside the Gasquet Market.
Just beanies,” Rands replied, pointing to a couple $15 yellow beanies printed with the words “Gasquet Complex Wildfires.”
Rands arrived in Del Norte County earlier in the week to join his partner in front of the market, where they were selling Gasquet Complex Fire T-shirts, hoodies, and hats for $20, $40 and $15 out of Rand’s mobile screen printing trailer. He just arrived from Milo, Ore., where he spent the previous week selling similar merchandise near Stouts Creek Fire Incident Command to the 1,100 or so fire personnel there.
“I probably did 10 fires last year,” he said. “And the firefighters all thanked us big time.”
“A lot of people wear the shirts around the base,” said Cano, a volunteer firefighter near Idaho City, Idaho. “Lots of people have collections of them, and hats, too. In Idaho City, where I’m from, it seems like every time there’s a large fire someone capitalizes on it with shirts.”
“I’ve been to fires all over the country, and almost every time there are shirts for sale,” said Beth Sjoblom, a U.S. Forest Service employee from Utah working at Incident Command in Gasquet. “I probably have 20, and one of my incident commanders had so many he had a quilt made out of them.”
Along with clothing, stickers, murals, and window painting, RAD Printing, Rands’ Medford-based screen printing and art design business that he owns with his wife, also advertises “incident wearables” — customized wildfire apparel that are marketed primarily to firefighters, he said. And he’s not the only one doing it.
A growth industry
California Fire Shirts, “Makers of quality incident wearables since 1999,” according to the website, declares itself the “leading provider of large incident fire shirts” and has $20 t-shirts for sale from 29 wildfires across California. Traveling T’s, a screen printing company based in Reno, Nevada, lists four wildfire shirts from 2013 and advertises onsite printing. Big Game Ink screen printing of Glendale, Oregon recently got into the game, too, said co-owner Nicole Gallegos.
“We’ve only ever done two — we did the Douglas Complex Fire and the Stouts Creek Fire, and we went to both because they were pretty close,” Gallegos said. “At Douglas, there were two other screen printers and at Stouts there were about five. It seems to be picking up and getting more common. Some people follow the fires and you could make a living doing that pretty easily.”
Rands, who went to both the Douglas and Stout fires, said he doesn’t follow fires blindly because it’s too risky from a business perspective, but he’ll go when all the factors point to opportunity.
“It’s like gambling,” Rands said. “Sometimes we don’t make as much, running out to the fires. Sometimes the fire seasons are really bunk. Or also, there’s a lot of competition and depending on how many fires there are you’ll run out and won’t find a good spot to set up. There’s a lot of factors.”
For the fire in Gasquet, Rands said his father, who sometimes helps him decide which fires to go to, knew the area and could tell from the local terrain that the Gasquet Complex would burn for awhile. Also, Rands said wildfire information sites like inciweb.com informed him there weren’t a lot of personnel tending to it — 600 or so — which means he’d have the fire to himself as far as his incident wearable competition was concerned.
“The territory doesn’t have a lot of logging roads and whatnot, and they don’t really manage the forests in a lot of the areas that it’s burning, and that’s typically a lot of the reasons of what causes a good fire,” Rands said. “It didn’t really have that much personnel so that usually means we’ll have the fire to ourselves.”
A family affair
Rands’ father, Randall Rands, started the screenprinting business in the 80s. He has since handed operations over to his son and moved to Florida. He said he got the idea of selling wildfire shirts when a firefighter stopped by his store in 1987.
“He said he needed some shirts with the name of the fire that was going on down there in Ashland,” Rands said. “He gave me the design, it was a pretty simple little thing, so I printed them out and I said ‘You’re selling shirts to firefighters at the fire camp?’
“So that’s when I first heard about it, and then when he ordered some more and I knew there was a market out there.”
Randall Rands went to three fires over the first couple years, including the 150,000-acre Silver Complex Fire. Things were different then, he said. There was no mobile screen printing trailer and no Internet. Rands said he was selling shirts out of his trunk and could only keep up with wildfires by reading local newspapers.
“Everything you need — the personnel, the acreage, the containment — it’s all available on the different websites, and they update them every morning at 5 a.m.,” he said. “I don’t have to, but I’ve been checking.”
It’s a good thing, too, Rands said. Using the Internet to stay up to date in regard to where the wildfires are and how big they’re getting helps prevent what happened to Rands in the early 90s from happening again.
“Back in 1991, I had this big plan,” he said. “We were going to head down to Arizona and hit the fires, because they start earlier there. Then we’d work our way back to Oregon, where they always come later in the season.”
But, with no inciweb.com to guide him, Rands said the fire season that year turned out to be a bust, as did his big plan.
“That season we didn’t have anything, there weren’t any fires” he said. “There’s a certain risk you’re taking — what if there’s no fires. You’re committed to it and nothing happens. There’s a fine line, and it’s hard to do it. As a screen printer you have a regular business and a regular customers and you can’t just go off and say you’re gone.”
Competition was another difference between the early days and now, Rands said.
“Back then I was the only guy in the area, and I was one of the pioneers for printing on site — we realized that’s something you had to do,” he said. “But it started picking up. The Biscuit Fire — that was the first time I saw somebody rent a storefront.”
Jim Wilkins, the Public Information Officer for the Gasquet Complex earlier this month, said he’s noticed an increase in the screenprinters near wildfire sites as well. Wilkins has been a firefighter since the early 70s, and he said screenprinters selling incident wearables near wildfires began with the advent of mobile screen printing.
“It’s been happening since the mid-80s at least,” he said. “We didn’t really see it before then, but now you pretty much find them at most of the fires. They range from opportunistic young people, to family members of firefighters all the way up to companies that have teams who are sent out to five or six different fires.”
A lot of the sellers will donate to fire victims or firefighter funds, Wilkins said. Brandon Rands said RAD Printing makes a point to give money to people who lose their homes as well as to the Wildland Firefighter Fund.
On its website, California Fire Shirts notes the company “uses some of these funds, at every fire we do, to actively support volunteer fire departments across the western states in addition to various wildland firefighter foundations.”
But qualms over profiting off disaster remain.
“At first I thought it would be looked down upon to do something like that,” said Nicole Gallegos of Big Game Ink, referring to when her company sold shirts at the Douglas Complex Fire. “I had just never heard of it. So many people were upset by the fire that it seemed odd to me to sell shirts when people were possibly losing their houses. I was surprised there was actually a business around it.”
Gallegos said she changed her mind when she saw firefighters were excited to buy the shirts.
“It was kind of neat realizing why firefighters want them,” she said. “You go to Vegas or something, you bring back a shirt. I don’t mind doing it now, it’s neat getting to go out and talk to the guys about the fires.”
Wilkins said firefighters like to buy the shirts so they can give them to family members, or compare them with other fire personnel when they travel to work different fires across the country.
“It’s just a way of commemorating what you’ve been doing,” he said. “For me it’s just a good way to open a conversation — a ‘You were at the Wallow Fire? Me too.’ sort of thing. I buy at least two at every fire I go to, and if I’m buying for the grandkids I might buy 10.”