Calorie-burning firefighters eat, drink plenty to battle state’s wildfires

What do firefighters eat when they’re battling a wildfire?

A whole lot of calories in the form of beef jerky, sandwiches, peanut butter and nuts.

It isn’t farm to fork, but it is filling.

“Firefighting is hard work,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. “They can very easily burn thousands of calories a day doing this job.”

As fires continue to burn around the Sacramento region and the rest of the state, the folks fighting them staff 24-hour shifts, beginning around 8 a.m. Before leaving base camp, they line up for a 2,000-calorie breakfast of rich foods like sausage patties, hash browns and scrambled eggs. Yogurt, oatmeal and fruit round out the menu.

Afterward, they receive a “sack lunch,” a brown paper bag containing roughly 4,000 calories worth of food that is supposed to last until the end of the shift.

But shifts easily exceed 24 hours, so it’s not uncommon for firefighters to pick up more than one bag and consume up to 10,000 calories in a 24-hour cycle, officials say.

Cal Fire requires a minimum amount of nutrition per bagged lunch. Each lunch must contain at least 3,000 calories, 480 grams of carbohydrates and 82 grams of protein, according to Cal Fire.

A typical bag will include a sandwich with meat, which is usually consumed first because it is most perishable, Tolmachoff said. There can also be tuna, peanut butter, oatmeal cookies, cheese sticks, crackers and preserved fruit.

In short, anything that is energy-dense, easy to consume and not perishable.

“These men and women have to be fueled to keep up,” said Liz Applegate, a nationally renowned expert and director of sports nutrition at UC Davis. “This is life or death. They are pushed to the limit.”

An average man needs 2,200 calories daily, while the average woman who is not pregnant or breastfeeding needs 1,800 calories daily, according to Applegate. Firefighters consume more than double that amount.

Still, “I would be surprised if anybody gained weight,” Applegate said of the firefighters.

Firefighters also drink plenty of water and sports drinks. Hot temperatures, combined with up to 60 pounds of equipment and clothing, create conditions where firefighters are sweating up to a gallon in 90 minutes and losing critical minerals like sodium, Applegate said.

Each fire engine is outfitted with one cooler loaded with Gatorade and water. Firefighters have passed out from not having enough food or liquids, Tolmachoff said.

“We tell them watch signals from their body – to constantly have water,” Tolmachoff said.

For dessert, firefighters have the choice of fruit, brownies or cookies. About the only thing they don’t get is chocolate.

“That’s because they melt,” Tolmachoff said.

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