At McMurdo scientific research station on Antarctica's coast, humidity is frozen out of the air, creating one of the driest environments on Earth.

Even organic things like wood dry up, basically having the moisture frozen out of them.

Given the dry conditions, fire is a sizable concern at McMurdo, which has contracted with Raytheon Polar Services for remote fire service for years.

The past five summers Raytheon's Sharon DiGiacomo has been directing a group of 40 highly trained firefighters to the research station. Before beginning the trek south, however, those fire crews receive much of their training in Utah — at Salt Lake City International Airport and at Hill Air Force Base.

Of course, McMurdo is nothing like Salt Lake City.

In the summer — from Oct. 1 to Feb. 23 — the sun never sets, shining 24 hours every day.

Despite that ever-present sunshine, temperatures range from 40 degrees below to 35 degrees above zero, a far cry from Utah's summer swelter.

The summer population reaches only 1,200, and the roads are made of ice, not asphalt.

Instead of worrying about Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz, McMurdo researchers spend their time studying animals, plants, the air, the ozone (or lack thereof), iceberg calving and almost everything else under the Antarctic sun.

Ninety-six buildings dot the ice and lava landscape. Those buildings include three bars, several field research centers, a gymnasium, galley, dorms, makeshift medical center and, of course, the fire station.

That's where DiGiacomo and her crew coordinate their efforts, to make sure whatever catches fire at McMurdo this summer doesn't stay burning for long.

"It's a really challenging environment," the 50-year-old firefighter said. "Anyone can fight a fire in good weather, but it's hard to fight a fire when it's snowing and 75 degrees below zero."

Water freezes quickly at McMurdo, so fire crews use water hoses sparingly. Instead, they practice knock-down techniques designed to quench fire sans water.

In such dry and often windy conditions, a flame that grew out of control would be devastating to the copious amounts of research data at the station, not to mention the researchers.

Additionally, the firefighters, who are contracted by Raytheon Polar Services, provide support to the three airstrips that serve the research station.

C-130s and other aircraft depart and land at McMurdo daily, taking supplies and personnel to research stations farther inland.

In such cold, aircraft engines and landing skis can fail, providing sometimes nervous takeoffs and landings.

That's where Hill Air Force Base and the Salt Lake City Fire Department enter the picture.

Yearly, the McMurdo firefighters trek to Salt Lake City to learn about airplane emergencies.

This year, Craig Engelke, Hill's C-130 flight test deputy chief, instructed the McMurdo crew about the huge cargo planes.

The crew receives a crash course on emergency procedures, escape routes, shutting down engines in emergencies and opening doors on the C-130.

It's the kind of training that is better learned in the warmth of Salt Lake City than on the frozen runways of McMurdo. The more the firefighters know before they go, the better off they will be, Engelke said.

The C-130, which Western states firefighters use to drop retardant on wildfires, are perfect for research missions in McMurdo, Engelke said.

The huge cargo crafts can take off and land on short runways and on ice — a necessity in Antarctica.

"They're just real versatile aircraft," Engelke said.

Hill become involved with the McMurdo firefighters at the request of the Salt Lake City Fire Department's Airport Training Division, which contracts with Raytheon Polar Services for training.

Instructor Ron Buckmiller heads the training — a 10-day affair conducted largely at Salt Lake International Airport, with field trips to Hill included.

"We give them basic knowledge of aircraft firefighting," Buckmiller said.

Engine fires, fuel leaks and rescue evacuation procedures are all covered, usually in a hands-on fashion.

DiGiacomo knows that the more firefighters can learn stateside where it's warm the better off they'll be when they enter the wasteland where the nearest hospital is in Christchurch, New Zealand, eight hours away by C-130.

"It's important to get this familiarization now so we don't freeze to death on a runway down there," she said. "It's very unforgiving."

While most of her crew will be in McMurdo Oct. 1, DiGiacomo said a few hardy firefighters will head down in August — when the air is really cold — to carve out some ice roads for the summer and prepare for fire season.

"We lay down a light layer of snow then pour water on it," DiGiacomo said. "Roads are best built when it's 75 below. The water freezes right away."


E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com