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Rita Dvorak might not know the exact calorie count of the hundreds of meals she makes each day for wildland fire crews, but she's pretty sure they're not lacking in the fuel the firefighters need to keep going.

"These boys are all belly-aching about how they're getting fat," she said with a grin. "I think we're OK in that department."

Dvorak runs the Montana Department of Natural Resource's fire camp kitchen, tasked with feeding the fire crews chasing blazes in southern and Eastern Montana.

Usually, the mobile kitchen chases crews to fires around the state and can be set up in fewer than eight hours. However, there have been so many fires burning nearby this year that the kitchen was set up near the DNRC offices to the north of Billings Logan International Airport in late June and hasn't budged.

Staffed by Dvorak and seven to eight other people and funded by the DNRC, the kitchen has made three meals a day since the end of June and can feed as many as 350 people at a time, meaning it's produced at least 10,000 meals this summer, often sending them out in a truck from Billings directly to the field.

"When these guys go to a fire, Rita can make X amount of food and put it in hot cans to send out to them," said Derek Yeager, fire program manager for the DNRC's Southern Land Office. "Having some good meals for them, it keeps them healthy, it keeps morale up. It makes a world of difference."

The kitchen consists of a handful of mobile trailers and tents that have all the equipment and resources needed to cook large amounts of food on short notice.

Earlier this week, Dvorak cooked up $5,000 worth of food before lunchtime and didn't blink an eye. Usually, the food crew will put together lunch a little after midnight and then do breakfast at 2 a.m., all to be sent out in portable storage containers called hot cans to the fire lines.

They do the same for dinner later in the day and have rows of tables set up on-site to feed any crews lingering around Billings.

But the kitchen's long stay in Billings isn't the norm. It's designed to be available to usually-smaller forces fighting fires that are either smaller or still in their early stages.

"The whole setup doesn't replace large fire operations," Yeager said. "It's meant to give us the speed and flexibility we'd need for a day or two to feed several hundred folks."

However, with new fires popping up around the region more often than usual this summer, it's made more sense to keep the kitchen stationary and truck hot food out to the crews.

Yeager said it could be there until the end of September, depending on how the rest of the fire season shakes out.

"It's mostly for feeding our firefighters and county firefighters on some of those fires, but we'll also feed ranchers and other fire crews if they're around," he said. "With them working so close, we could be up and running for a while longer still."

Dvorak has been running the kitchen for 21 years and knows most, if not all, of the ins and outs they might not teach in training classes.

Such as, when you're making hundreds of meals a day to be distributed to folks in the field, it's easier for officials to toss premade pulled pork sandwiches out to them on the go than bins of the individual ingredients.

"It's easier to prewrap them, give them easy-access items," Dvorak said. "Managers can just throw the sandwiches out to them instead of tossing spoonfuls of meat their way."

It's not just simple food, either. While, yes, items like sandwiches do show up on the menu, firefighters are also treated cabbage-tater tot casserole, breakfast burritos, salad bars, desserts and Dvorak's ever-popular barbecue ribs.

"I make everything from hot dogs to prime rib," she said.

Dvorak has had the chance to shape how the program runs and the equipment used, all to make sure the men and women on the fire lines get their food.

"They've kind of built this around me as I've been here over the years," she said.

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