Small team gets BLM firetrucks to America’s wildfires
Photos + story by Toshio Suzuki
Every wildfire eventually goes out, but the preparation for wildfire season never ends.
One small fire team that works year-round is in charge of the development—from resourcing to delivery—of every customized vehicle within the Bureau of Land Management’s firefighting fleet. The BLM group has become so highly regarded they are now handling the firetruck orders for every agency within the Department of the Interior.
With coveralls on and to-go coffee cup placed on a garage work bench, Brent Higbee is about to roll under a brand new firetruck, a place he calls his “happy zone.”
“I tend to go underneath,” said Higbee, a staffer for the BLM National Fire Equipment Program and a certified mechanic who drag races his own car in Idaho.
On this chilly winter day, Higbee and his team members are inspecting 10 new fire command vehicles at an aftermarket fabrication shop in Salem, Oregon. The Ford and Dodge pickup trucks are getting off-road capability, front guards, lighting, BLM decals, sirens and special communication systems that work in the most remote areas of the American West.
All of these add-ons, among many more, are specific to the class of vehicle, and have been accumulated after years of testing and trickle-down suggestions from wildland firefighters in the field.
Even after all of that, the team of five—all with fire line experience—arrives at the facility ready to check each truck down to the individual nuts and bolts.
While nearing the end of an inspection, Higbee noticed that the clearance between a heavy-duty front brush guard and the right side of the truck’s body was not wide enough to fit his finger. It needs to have that few centimeters of clearance to provide flexibility when the truck is being driven in the most rugged environments imaginable, whether that is the thick forests of the Northwest or the canyons and deserts of the Southwest.
“As it twists and articulates, this just pounds into the lip of the fender,” said Higbee, pointing to the Safari-sized brush guard built for the Ford F-350 Super Duty truck.
What could have been an easy, understandable oversight ended up highlighting the team’s attention to detail and institutional knowledge.
As Higbee noted, firefighters working for the BLM and other agencies in America are “completely off-roading.” If firefighters run into a wellhead or anything else out there, they need to rely on their trucks to keep working, he said.
“We’re trying to make (trucks) live as long as possible for the users,” said Higbee.
During the 2015 season, three firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service died near Twisp, Washington, after a vehicle accident caused them to be overrun by the wildfire.
“This is a game of lives,” explained Tommy Hays, a section manager on the team. “(The vendors) definitely understand that severity.”
A complete retrofit of a firetruck takes about a year and a half, from start to finish, so the team is always working on future orders. Nine different models are currently in production, from the small command pickups to large crew transports and the large fire engines with 750-gallon tanks.
In both 2013 and 2014, the team produced about 43 customized firetrucks; but 2015 is set to be their biggest year ever, with 139 trucks expected to be delivered across multiple agencies.
For Elden Alexander, NFEP program manager, their mission is simple: Get the “best equipment, safest equipment for our firefighters.”
“We’re all firefighters—we’re not engineers—so we really try to look at the equipment from the user perspective,” said Alexander.
The firefighting background, listening to what the fire crews need and having an open mind to alterations is what sets the BLM team apart, according to Perry Shatley, a wildland manager for BrandFX, one of the largest firetruck manufacturers in America and a BLM contractor.
“They bring to the firefighter the best there is available,” said Shatley.
--photos captured Feb. 25, 2015
--more information on BLM Fire programs: www.blm.gov/nifc/st/en/prog/fire.1.html