Making money: When forests burn this agent flies in firefighters

By Kate Rice
Making Money logoHalf the forest-fire fighting resources in the U.S. -- equipment and personnel alike -- were in Colorado last week, fighting nine fires that covered more than a quarter of a million acres. It was a frightening spectacle to most people, but for Morgan Nicholson-Bishop the fires also represented opportunity.

Nicholson-Bishop, 30, is CEO of Manassas Travel, a Travel Leaders agency based in Salt Lake City. She and her agents specialize in a little-known niche: booking flights for firefighters flying in from all over the country to battle the flames.

On average, the team has been booking 100 firefighters a day since June 23, flying them into Cortez, Durango, Fort Collins and other Colorado towns and cities ringing the fires. While the majority of firefighters are men, she said about 3% of the smoke eaters she books now are women.

Nicholson-Bishop flies the firefighters into airports served mostly by commuter and regional jet aircraft that seat 50 to 70 passengers. That means space is tight. So is time.

Her agents have about 10 minutes to make each booking. Their goal is to get the firefighters to their destination by 9 p.m. each day so they can have a good night's sleep before starting their tours of duty. Generally, they work two weeks on, followed by two weeks off. But when the fires rage out of control, schedules, too, go up in smoke.

Manassas Travel is an $18 million agency that specializes in government travel; the U.S. Forest Service is one of its accounts, which it shares with two other agencies.

Manassas books all types of travel for Forest Service employees, not just firefighters. But when fires rage out of control, the Forest Service brings in extra help from other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management. It starts by calling on in-state firefighters, but as the blazes grow and more troops are needed, they tap firefighters from surrounding states.

Manassas Travel firefighterIn the case of the Colorado fires, Manassas Travel has found itself bringing in firefighters from all over the West.

Battling forest fires is a 24/7 job, and so is booking air for the people who do the fighting. It was for that reason that Nicholson-Bishop brought the agency's after-hours service in house.

"We couldn't trust an after-hours agency to do the things that we do," she said.

Her round-the-clock operation has been so successful that other, bigger agencies have approached her about outsourcing their after-hours help desks to Manassas. But Nicholson-Bishop says she's got enough to do as it is.

She herself works the after-hours help line from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. once every two weeks. When she's on call, it doesn't matter what time of night that special ring wakes her. She is up and at her computer in an instant.

Nor does she always work from the relative comfort of an office. Nicholson-Bishop has also traveled to the edge of blazes to book smoke eaters' travel.

For example, in 2003, the Apple Fire was the biggest in Oregon history. The dispatchers were so overwhelmed that they asked to have a travel agent on site in the dispatch office, a trailer parked a few miles from the fire.

"I just went up there; they had a computer set up for me, and I logged into Sabre," she recalled recently.

The dispatchers handed her their orders and she booked the tickets.

"We were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day," she said.

A helicopter that sprayed fire retardant on the fire would take off occasionally. Because of the weight of its cargo, it needed a runway to take off like a plane, and the entire operation was so noisy that she'd have to stop work. But she also got a thrill out of watching it take off.

Morgan Nicholson-BishopHer dispatch office colleagues included a small crew of firefighters who used spades, shovels and a truck to put out the fires that would start around the site. The compound looked like a scene from "MASH," with the firefighters staying in tents and eating at a communal mess haul. The men showered in a semi trailer filled with shower stalls.

Nicholson-Bishop, who slept at a motel near the dispatch office, said she was awed by the smoke jumpers whose plane was parked not far from the compound. "I think that's probably one of the most dangerous jobs," she said.

Smoke jumpers are an elite group, and they and the flight crews that drop them into remote areas are tightly knit teams. Smoke jumpers often parachute in and tell the planes where to drop firefighting equipment, which often consists of little more than spades and shovels they use to dig two-foot trenches designed to slow the spread of fire.

Firefighters working in more accessible areas can use bulldozers to plow under vegetation that might feed a fire.

Nicholson-Bishop grew up in the industry. As a child, she stuffed envelopes for Manassas Travel, which her mother, Paula Wild, started some 20 years ago. When she isn't booking firefighters, she does the agency's leisure marketing. That includes doing a weekly travel segment for a local TV station and being a news source about travel for local media.

And she continues to build the agency's government travel business. Manassas just won a contract with the Department of Defense that will double the agency's size.

"We just love the government niche," Nicholson-Bishop said. "It's somewhat predictable." After a pause, she added, "In a way."

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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