Wyo. firefighters learn mechanics to recycle military vehicles

Volunteer and professional firefighters from around the state are in Cheyenne learning to be truck mechanics

By Bill McCarthy
The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Recycled military transport trucks make great wildland fire trucks.

But they don't afford much protection when they aren't running.

So periodically mechanics from the Wyoming Forestry Division put on a clinic.

Monday, today and Wednesday, 16 volunteer and professional firefighters from around the state are in Cheyenne learning to be truck mechanics.

Do eight hours of classroom and 16 hours of hands-on work in the state shop make a master diesel-truck mechanic?

"If they have the right aptitude," Steve Stowe said, laughing.

Stowe is in charge of the state piece of a program that converts surplus military and sometimes U.S. Forest Service heavy-duty transport trucks into tools that local firefighters use to protect grasslands and forests.

The program is called the Federal Excess Personal Property Program and has been around since 1956.

Under the program, the U.S. Forest Service owns the cabs and chassis of the trucks, most of which formerly belonged to the Department of Defense.

A cab and chassis for a fire engine could cost $75,000 to $150,000, Stowe said.

Those are loaned to state foresters. The state then strips them down, gives them that highly visible fluorescent lime green, and on occasion, red paint job.

The state outfits them with the necessary and requested fire equipment that local governments pay for and turns them over to local firefighters.

In some rural areas of Wyoming, the refurbished trucks are the only fire trucks available, Stowe said.

And while three days of training will not make master mechanics, the firefighters learn enough to maintain the trucks and do common repairs. And the four state mechanics and Stowe are a phone call away.

"I've learned so much in just the first six hours," said Dennis Wood of the Arvada-Clearmont Fire District in rural Sheridan County.

"I would go so far as to say no fire district would be in as good of shape without them," Wood added — even in the rich counties.

Wood said that the use of the trucks and the equipment they bring to the fires also affords firefighters a greater degree of safety.

Ray Weidenhaft is the state fire management officer.

Sometimes local governments spend so much money on a new fire engine that the drivers don't want to be the first guy to scratch one, he said.

The refurbished trucks "are less expensive than the new commercial trucks, and they are well-built trucks," said Weidenhaft. "So they're not afraid to take them off the road."

Trucks for structure fires are not suitable for wild-land fires, he said.

And the equipment on trucks designed for wild-land fires is not good for use inside a burning building, he said. But they are capable of spraying fireproof foam on a building to protect the outside of the structure.

In many rural areas of the state, Weidenhaft said, there are no fire hydrants. The ex-military trucks are well suited to hauling water to a site. They are usually equipped with an 800-gallon tank.

"It's paid huge dividends for us," Weidenhaft said.

And the locals tend to make sure they get the most out of the old vehicles before they turn them back over to the Forest Service when they get so old that parts are no longer available.

Stowe said, "It's been our experience that when you take an old truck like this and make it so that it is parade ready, the firefighters take a lot of pride and treat it accordingly."

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