Texas Company Turns Trucks Into Wildfire Fighters

By RONALD W. ERDRICH, Abilene Reporter-News | November 24, 2014

Could icemakers be next?

Most of the options on the brush fire trucks made at Texas-based Steele Fire Apparatus fall into the category of things you might expect. Light towers, electrical inverters, pumps for hydraulic tools, that sort of thing.

But if you’re thinking it would nice to have a place to keep a Dr Pepper and turkey sandwich fresh while squelching a blaze deep in a shinnery, then they’ve got you covered for that, too.

“We’ve done some refrigerators for a few rescue trucks,” company owner Bill Steele told the Abilene Reporter-News. “No stereos, though.”

A thought crossed his mind and he mulled it over for a moment.

“Never had somebody ask for a coffee pot yet, either,” he said. “But I know a few people who have put one in.”

Oh sure, these brush trucks already are getting tanks, hoses, LED lights and everything else you’d expect to find on an emergency vehicle. That stuff comes standard.

But these trucks have to be customized to fight wildland fires for specific parts of the state. In East Texas, a truck might be smaller with a lower capacity tank in the back. You head west, the trucks and their capacity start getting bigger.

In the past, volunteer fire departments usually did the refit themselves if a new used truck came into their possession. Often the trucks were military surplus and had already seen a full life.

But those days are fading. Steele says that most volunteer firemen don’t have the time to convert a truck anymore.

“Raise a family, work, do everything else – and then try to build trucks at night?” he asked. “I’ve got departments that borrow money to get trucks built so they can have decent equipment.”

Programs from the Texas Forest Service have helped pay for some of that. Steele said the TFS assistance has enabled volunteer departments to bring in newer and better equipment that was unavailable to many of them before.

“It opens up opportunities for businesses like ourselves, to where we can build (trucks) for them,” he said.

Steele started his business 34 years ago this month, primarily repairing farm equipment. It was in 1995 that he built his first brush truck.

“We’d been looking for something to get into other than just repair for a lot of years,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in this fire department down here and had a wild idea. I said, ‘Let’s build us a brush truck.”‘

His company sold the first one before it was even completed. Two more were built and quickly sold as well.

But it wasn’t until 2002 that fate intervened and forced the switch.

“Well, my shop burned down in 2002, so when we rebuilt it, I said this is what we’re going to do,” he recalled. “We weeded everything else out, by the end of 2003 – beginning of 2004 we were doing fire trucks full time.”

The irony of building fire trucks but losing his shop to a fire isn’t lost on him.

“I just had an electrical short in one of the connections,” he said, shrugging. “It was not fun.”

He shook his head, chuckling.

“And don’t think I didn’t catch any ribbing – I was fire chief at that time,” he said. “But it’s okay.”

Steele said it can take anywhere from a month to 90 days to strip down a truck and refit for fighting fires. They start with the cab and chassis and build up from there.

“We fabricate all our own bodies, all of the compartments. We purchase the tanks and pumps, hose reels, that type of stuff,” Steele said. “e do all of our own plumbing and try to use as much local material as we can.”

There is an extra measure of satisfaction when it comes to building fire trucks. You know what you’re working on will likely save somebody’s life and property.

Steele recalled April’s Camp Barkeley Fire that threatened Buffalo Gap. A lot of his trucks fought that fire and he felt a kinship from that.

“I may not be a member anymore of the department here, but I’m a member of a lot of other departments,” he said. “That’s the way I feel about it.”

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