Antarctica’s summer season is about to begin, which means hundreds of scientists are preparing to head south to conduct experiments on melting glaciers, migrating penguins, and elusive neutrinos. But so, too, will the support staff of the United States Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, population 1,100. McMurdo is a company town of sorts: It has its own air traffic controller, machine shop, IT help desk, dormitory housing, three bars, yoga classes, hiking trails—and fire department.
In fact, there are still openings for qualified firefighters who are willing to spend up to five months enduring bitter cold (mean temperature 0 degrees F), desolation (2,415 miles from New Zealand), and occasional cabin fever in exchange for living in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. While the Antarctica gig only lasts a few months, it also takes a takes special skills—from how to suit up for below-zero rescues in a crevasse on the nearby Ross Sea ice sheet to putting out a nasty fire on an incoming airplane engine.
“McMurdo is a small industrial town,” says assistant fire chief Andre Fleurette, who is preparing for his 17th deployment to Antarctica. “And it has all the problems of a small industrial town.” The fire department—made up of 46 firefighters and paramedics, including five full-time dispatchers and a mechanic—responds to about 350 emergency calls every year. “Small fires, odor complaints, and hazardous materials responses are the most common,” says Fleurette. More serious problems are rare, especially because anyone who goes to the outpost, from scientists to support personnel, are pre-screened for medical conditions. The Antarctic population is generally younger and fitter than the average US population, so they’re less likely to have a medical emergency. And they’re all required to undergo fire safety training before coming to McMurdo.
So how do you fight fires in Antarctica, the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth? Despite the temperatures, Fleurette says they still use water pumped through hoses. The key is to keep the water constantly moving inside the pumper truck so it doesn’t freeze. They also don’t turn the water on until they are ready to spray the fire; any liquid left inside the hose will freeze in just a few minutes. The custom Antarctic fire trucks come with stainless steel valves. That’s because the reverse osmosis process that turns seawater into water for the base also leaches minerals from other type of metal pipes, Fleurette says.
Out at the McMurdo ice runway, firefighters stand by for every incoming flight with special de-icing foam made with ethylene glycol and “purple K” or potassium bicarbonate—that are smother engine fires or dripping oil. Firefighters use similar sprays and foams up north, but these variants used at McMurdo are rated for 40 degrees below zero.
Firefighters also have to be dressed and ready to work in any condition, says Fleurette. “Wind is king,” he says. “When we are approaching an emergency we prepare for some serious constant winds.” Frostbite is a constant threat, even in sunny weather. That’s because of the adiabatic winds that can blow for days at a time from the South Pole toward McMurdo, creating perfect conditions to whip up flames.
For Antarctic firefighters, there’s little room for error. In 2012, two Brazilian marines died fighting a fire that broke out in a diesel generator on Brazil’s Antarctic base. More than 40 scientists and crew were evacuated to a nearby Chilean installation because the base’s power supply was knocked out, and much of the base was destroyed. Brazil announced a futuristic $100 million replacement base that should be ready for scientists in 2018. And in 2008, the Russian “Progress” base burned, killing one person.
Because of this history, Fleurette and NSF officials have instituted a strict safety culture at McMurdo and additional US facilities at the South Pole and Palmer Station. Scientists, bottle washers, cooks and snowcat drivers conduct monthly fire drills, while all base phones can quickly reach a fire dispatcher. Fleurette says he can respond within three minutes to any problem on base.
But many buildings are getting old and perhaps more at risk of a potential fire. Navy Seabees erected the first buildings at McMurdo back in 1956. Today, McMurdo Station has approximately 100 buildings covering 49 acres, with some of the oldest buildings still in place after over 50 years. Not all have smoke detectors or fire alarms, according to the NSF’s 2015 McMurdo Master Plan, a roadmap of sorts to upgrading the aging base.
Still, former Antarctica firefighters like Isaiah Walter say it’s an incredible job. “If you have the opportunity to go, I would go,” says Walter, who worked as a firefighter in Antarctica in 2005 and now runs a digital marketing firm in San Diego. “It’s the experience of a lifetime, you meet cool and awesome people, and you are there to support science.”
It’s not for everyone, obviously: Every year, a few new hires wash out because they can’t take the routine, Fleurette says. Others quit days or weeks later after checking off Antarctica on their bucket list. “People go to Antarctica for the adventure, but sometimes they forget they have a job,” he says. “They have to mop a floor or roll up a hose line. Combating the routine in such an amazing place can be challenging.” If you’re up for the challenge, though, Fleurette has a proposition for you: “We are still hiring for October.”