You could say Sister Wendy Olin jumps from the frying pan into the fire. For the last three summers she has worked for Cattlemen’s Meat Company, a catering unit that serves firefighters working wildfires throughout the state.
This summer she worked north of Lowman on the Buck Fire and the Pioneer Fire — the largest in the nation this summer. She works 12 to 14 hour shifts in the kitchen, preparing meals that feed up to 1,500 firefighters a day.
The catering unit consists of six semi trucks with 53-foot trailers. An additional two pick-up trucks bring in fifth wheels that serve as accommodations for the staff.
Driving a semi truck is a highlight for Sister Wendy — as well as the opportunity to work outside after a year in the classroom where she serves as an educational specialist for kids with learning challenges. “It brings balance to my life,” she says.
The catering operation runs around the clock with crews coming in at midnight after the last firefighter is fed to begin preparing hot meals and sack lunches for the next day. Nutrition is a priority with each meal consisting of fresh salads and abundant protein. Fire crews arrive from around the country and are fed a 5,000 calorie-a-day diet in large dining areas under tents or in “spike camps” that accommodate firefighters who are unable to come into base camp.
The hot and dusty environment can be tough on the dining room. Sister Wendy spends time watering the ground in the eating area to keep dust at bay and wiping the tables down.
After a knee replacement last November it is especially hard work, but her boss Jane has created a schedule that gets her off her feet occasionally. Her boss also seeks out the Mass schedule at the local Catholic church and gives Sister Wendy a company truck so she can attend weekly Mass.
“I do love the good people I get to work with,” says Sister Wendy. “I also like being around the firefighters. It’s fascinating the conversations I get to have with them.” As her boss also insists that Sister Wendy’s name tag include that she is a sister, firefighters sometimes ask for prayer or share difficult emotions such as homesickness.
“It’s a hard life for them,” says Sister Wendy. “They are so appreciative of what we are doing for them. It’s a ministry that’s so totally different.”
For now the fires have been quenched and the landscape begins its recovery. The firefighters and catering staff are back at home, including Sister Wendy who has returned to the classroom — until next summer.