Rural Fire Fighting—a Review Past, Present, and Future

Rural Fire Fighting—a Review Past, Present, and Future

How Far Has Rural Fire Protection Progressed in the 75 Years Since FIRE ENGINEERING Came into Being?

Editors’ Note: Last year in the Convention Issue of Fire Engineering, the author of the accompanying text presented an article entitled “What Can be Done to Improve Rural Fire Attack and Control?” In it Chief Woolley endeavored to relate the principles of modern coordinated fire attack which he previously expounded in this Journal for municipal fire suppression, to the control and extinguishment of farm fires.

That article, together with the series of coordinated attack, and in particular one installment of the series, captioned “Carrying the Water and the Attack to the Fire,” were so well received that this year the editors requested him to prepare for our readers a quick review of the entire subject of rural fire protection, beginning from about the time the antecedents of Fire Engineering came into being.

This he has done as best as he could under the limitations imposed by available editorial space. No attempt has been made to detail either the equipment and facilities requisite to modern rural fire suppression, or the methods and techniques employed in this endeavor. Those stories have previously been told in individual articles, and will be told in similar future messages as changes and improvements occur. At best, the author has hoped to bring our readers a better understanding of the problems that be sought the rural fire fighters of yesteryears, and some of those which face them today.

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, when this Journal came into existence, the nation was still in the “horse-and-buggy” era. Mechanization of the farm had only just begun, with the application of the steam engine to certain farming chores. Farms were naturally fewer, and more isolated. Roads were generally unpaved and unsuited to response of any fire apparatus. They remained so until the coming of the motor car.

Communications facilities for turning in fire alarms were largely non-existent, liven if firemen were available in an area, fire alarms had to be transmitted by mounted riders or other equally slow means, and by the time tired fire fighters reached the scene, if they ever did so, only the chimneys and foundations remained as monuments to those early days of rural fire fighting.

For the most part, farm buildings were built to burn. The spread of fire from one structure to another was accelerated by the ubiquitous wooden shingle. Even where farm buildings were built of brick or masonry, fire was invited to enter by the roof.

Water in quantity was missing on most farms. The wind-mill, which provided power for the farm water works, was missing except on the more prosperous farms. About the only fire preventive measures the farmer took was to invest in a batch of lightning rods. The electrified farm was not even a blueprint. Kerosene, better known as “coal oil” was the common source of illumination. It was also the universal expediter in starting fires for cooking and heating, wood being the predominant fuel. Then, as not too infrequently happens today, this deadly mixture dealt out death promiscuously.

Yesterday—no fire protection—total loss. Barns, outbuildings, house, all go when fire protection is lacking (and buildings are built to burn).

Photo courtesy National Board of Fire Underwriters

Wooded farm lands were vastly greater in those days, and forest fires were a very real menace, aided and abetted by the railroad’s “iron horse.”

Farmers had few ideas about how to prevent fires, and fewer on how to extinguish them, once started. They expected to lose the dwelling, barn, outbuilding, or other structure in which fire originated, and if the entire group of farm buildings didn’t go up in smoke, there was rejoicing.

All-in-all those were pretty rugged days for the farmer and the very few firemen who made any effort at rural fire control.

The situation of the time is indicated somewhat by an item in an early 1877 issue of the National Firemen’s Journal, progenitor of FIRE ENGINEERING. It said “Steam threshing is extending among farmers, and stacks for grain and contiguous barns, and other buildings have been fired thereby. Some insurance companies add 15% to the rates of insurance where steam threshers are used, or prohibit their use entirely.”

In these early days, town growth was increasing, while rural population remained largely stationary, the result of efforts to mechanize industry, and the increase in railroad and steamboat facilities. Thus, there was very little attempt by farmers to get together and form any sort of fire defense. The concentration of property in urban areas resulted in new and flammable articles such as kerosene and gas. Illuminating gas was finding broader use, and getting in its destructive work, although of course only in urban areas.

Another headache for farmers of those days was the arsonist. Early issues of this Journal relate the destruction by fire of barns by “barn burners” around Indianapolis, Ind., Denver and many other places.

From Troy, N. Y., came the report that nearly one-half of all the fires in that area in the year 1877 were caused by lamp explosions and careless use of oil. Many small towns like Wheaton, Ill., alarmed by the many fires and plagued by drought, purchased wind mills and tanks for water supplies. In this connection the National Firemen’s Journal advanced this sage advice: “The example should be followed by other suburban towns which are deficient in means to quench fires.”

It is interesting to note that from the very first issue right up to the present, the editors of FIRE ENGINEERING have urged better fire protection for rural and small town areas. Thus we read in the May 18, 1878, number of the N.F.J. “To those places which are yet unfurnished with the most simple appliances for subjugating fires, we can only reiterate our advice, that the best fire preventive is a good Fire Department, and recommend each to establish one forthwith.”

Bucket Brigade Starts Retreat with Advent of Gasoline

Motorization was the first great step forward in the development of organized rural fire, fighting. The motor car not only brought the farmer good roads and a means of getting around, but it introduced automotive fire apparatus, which could get to his farm in a hurry to furnish him the maximum protection. So it was that bad roads, hand pumps and bucket brigades began their retreat in the early 1900’s as village fire departments began to multiply and as motorized apparatus increased in favor. Motors, improved highways and telephones have proved the impetus for rural and small community fire protection, just as they have been factors in changing and bettering other conditions of rural and suburban life.

The country began to catch up with the city in its ability to concentrate fire fighting forces of a wide territory at the scene of a menacing fire in a comparatively short time. In certain areas, country-wide fire departments began to spring up. In others, towns and villages, and township fire forces organized for mutual protection. Thirty-two years ago, it is related, Gloucester County, N. J., with “a suburban and rural population of about 50,000 and area of 326 square miles,” had a piece of fire apparatus, motor propelled, for about every ten square miles. It was not unusual for small chemical fire companies to respond to suburban fires, and beat out their city fire company rivals located much nearer the scene. In one chronicled instance (1920) a “two-in-one” motor fire truck of “one of the newer models” raced 20 miles and its volunteer crew was pumping water from a lake upon flames which threatened a little village, thirty minutes after it got the alarm.

With early motorization, little villages of only a few hundred population purchased small motor chemical engines, or other light apparatus. Nearly every motor truck manufacturer in the period between 1908 and 1928 turned out some sort of “fire apparatus.” In most of the small communities the decision to organize a volunteer fire department and buy equipment came shortly after the largest house or mill, or store in the community burned to the ground.

Along about the period of these developinents, came the equally important improvements of water supplies. The small portable gasoline-driven water pump, found its way into farms and village fire departments, while larger gasoline units displaced the unreliable old windmill.

Organized rural fire fighting makes use of wafer carriers. Keeping a Michigan pumper's booster ____ank filled by means of milk cans and other water carriers, when no water is available for big lines.

Photo courtesy National Board of Fire Underwriters

Example of exposure fire that razed costly farm of Dr. R. O. Blood, former Governor of New Hampshire, at E. Concord, N. H. Blaze of suspicious origin spread from outbuildings to main structure at left, while prize Ayshire breed cattle look on.The local newspaper helped build this fire department. Small town newspapers can spark fire control and prevention improvements. This fire house in Elkland, Pa., used to be the town hall. The editor of the Elkland Journal, D. Lee Stoddard, sparkplugged idea of building an adequate fire force—and did it, to win the N. B. F. U. Gold Medal Award.

Photo courtesy National Board of Fire Underwriters

Turning the pages of the volumes of yesteryears, it is apparent that no single improvement was responsible for the growth of rural fire fighting. The chain of events usually went like this: fire wipes out property—perhaps takes lives. The “I-told-you-so’s” beat the drum; the local newspaper (if one exists; takes up the refrain. “An aroused populace” meets and organizes a fire company. Somebody digs up a wornout truck, or jalopy, on which is mounted a miscellaneous, weird and wonderful assortment of fire extinguishers, hose, and tools. Somebody else—probably a garage man or a local store keeper or other public spirited citizen, provides “parking place.” Somebody is elected captain or chief—and the “fire department is in business.”

Of course if the heat was really on and the populace sufficiently aroused, the organization took a more practical and efficient course. Representatives of fire apparatus companies were called in, and when the new apparatus arrived, there was ready a new fire house.

Many of these little suburban and rural districts of that time contracted for their fire protection with the nearest municipal fire departments. Still later, these communities found it more expedient to organize and operate their own lire forces.

Another factor, which had a bearing upon this growth, was the introduction of state laws authorizing farm communities to establish and support their Own fire departments. In addition to permitting or authorizing the establishment of such fire protection, nearly every state in the nation has provided some sort of liability compensation to protect its volunteer firemen and their apparatus against injury.

Rural fireman must be prepared for forest and field fires. Here fire fighters attempt to save covered water reservoir in path of Green Valley, Cal., brush fire, which swept 8,000 acres of San Francisquito Canyon region of Los Angeles National Forest in 1951.Rescuing livestock from blazing barns is one requisite for rural firemen. Here helping hands try to corral one of five cows saved from burning barn of Joseph Lachance, Lewiston, Me., after it has returned to barn twice. Sixteen other animals were not so fortunate.

Still another important factor has been the lowering of insurance rates as fire protection in these rural and fire protection districts improved.

Assistance was also given by the Federal and State Governments. Back in 1930, FIRE ENGINEERING, in an article headed “Safeguarding the Farm by Local and Community Fire Protection,” quoted the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which said: “If farmers would provide themselves with simple firefighting equipment and organize community fire companies, and if they would use more care and forethought in building, the Nation’s $100,000,000 farm fire loss could be cut in half.” Better fire protection has been promoted by various other Government agencies, as well as by the Grange, by the Chambers of Commerce, International Association of Fire Chiefs and other groups. But still farm fires are too numerous, too disastrous, too costly. Fire hazards have increased on the farm, no less than in industry, with the greater mechanization and electrification both inside and outside the farm home. Farmers are using and storing more petroleum products on their farms. Improperly stored gasoline and other flainmables, and dirty or defective oil heaters, are two hazards that have resulted.

In the corn belt, artifical drying of grain is coming into wider use. Much of this equipment is home-made and has been a prolific source of fire. Yet it is a product of the times.

Notwithstanding all the to-do about lightning and the frenzy about lightning rods down the years, lightning damage seems to be increasing on farms, particularly damage to electrical equipment such as water heaters not properly grounded (N.B.F.U. June, 1949). What the future will bring, as farmers take on television, cannot be conjectured.

Nor has the farmer learned very much about either the location of his farm buildings, or their construction itself, from the -viewpoint of the fire hazards. Apparently he is today making many of the same old mistakes, using combustible building material, and erecting structures to promote rather than retard fire extension. True, it would appear a majority of farmers, realizing the hazard of the shingle roof, are roofing with non-combustible covering, or with metal. Many, also, have adopted tile or masonry for their silos rather than burnable wood. But, for the most part, barns and outbuildings are constructed the same old way, to burn, and hay and other combustible materials arc stored and stacked, as of yore.

Hazards Greater, But So Is Fire Protection

From the foregoing it might appear that rural fire protection is in a pretty bad way. Actually, however, such is not the case. Real progress has been made. The future looks bright. At least, it appears that as the hazards on the farm continue to grow in extent and degree (just as they are increasing in home, industry and business), so, too is farm fire protection being better planned, organized and executed.

Fire communicated to this big barn at Blackstone, Mass., from another burning structure, despite its fireproof roof, to result in total loss. Fire protection too little and too late.

Photo courtesy Andy Palmer

New fire departments are coming into being at better than one a day on the average, throughout the country. They are better financed, better planned, better equipped, better trained, than those of even a decade ago. And they should be. Because they can profit by the mistakes and errors of bygone days.

Most of these newcomers to the fire service have a decided edge on their less fortunate progenitors in those fundamentals which, according to the insurance rating boards, are essential for good fire departments.

Apparatus and Equipment

Today’s rural fire fighter has an almost inexhaustible array of fire control apparatus and equipment to draw upon. In automotive vehicles there are pumpers, double, triple and quadruple combination, with all the needed power, roadability and stamina to get their loads to the fire, and to make good the manufacturer’s guarantee as to performance. There are pumper-tankers; high pressure pumpers, and combinations of high pressure and low pressure pumpers; there are auxiliary pumpers, and trailer pumpers. There are pumpers with booster equipment, with and without proportioners, and liquid foam, and wet water storages.

Not a little special equipment has been developed for rural fire fighting (and for coping with forest and field fires). Of this the small, light but powerful portable auxiliary and ‘lift’ pumps are proving indispensable. Today’s rural apparatus also carries portable electric power and light plants, with improved flood, spot and other light; respiratory protective equipment.

Many a city fire chief might get ideas from studying the hose-loads of some of the modern rural and suburban fire units. For fast attack, for getting the most fire killing effect out of the least water, and for doing it with least labor and exertion on the part of the fewest fire fighters, the author commends some of the present day rural pre-connected hose layouts.


Many a big city fireman will say that fighting fires on the farm is no different than fighting fires in the city. Fundamentally, he may be right, but he will have a hard time convincing the average rural fire fighter of the fact, and of the need for specialized training in his job.

Because of his belief, the progressive rural fireman is beginning to insist on special training for rural fire fighting. That training takes into consideration elements of attack, including getting water, relaying, rescue of farm animals as well as humans, and many other factors. Exponents of this specialized teaching are men like Abe Gent, Norton Ames and L. E. Shingledecker. This is one factor of rural fire protection that should see interesting developments in the years ahead.

Perhaps the most important advance in rural fire suppression has been in the field of fire service communications. It is true that the farmer is still cursed in some areas with the telephone party line, and in others with the dial system, both of which may fail momentarily or at length in an emergency, but it cannot be denied that rural telephone fire alarm service, for alerting the rural volunteer firemen today, far surpasses anything of the past. The fire service owes a very special tip of the hat to the small town and district telephone exchanges. Tomorrow, radical improvements may be had, notably in the field of electronic fire alarms, whereby the farmer will be able to transmit alarms with all the facility of the city dweller. At the same time, tomorrow’s volunteer fire fighter will be alerted, and dispatched to the right spot, in the shortest time, more expeditiously than today. Finally, radio, which is already coming to the municipal fire service, will find its way into rural fire fighting. This doesn’t mean rural fire forces are not now using radio. Some are and with remarkable results. But in the years ahead, every rural company unit will be radioequipped, both as to mobile radio on vehicles and light portable, pack-set, or other walkie talkie radio. Nothing has done more to rectify the great weakness of on-the-fire-ground communications in wide-area rural farm fire fighting than short-wave radio.

Communications plus good roads plus cooperation equal good fire fighting. Rural fire fighting equipment, water carriers of every kind, including oil and gas tankers are mobilized to fight a hot barn fire near Lapeer, Mich. This was a successful type of farmer’s co-op that paid dividends.

Photo courtesy National Board of Fire Underwritera

Water Supplies

Not only are water supplies being provided for to small country and suburban areas, but water for fire fighting is made available in farm areas. Many states have undertaken water supply projects. Also, the farmer who today has unlimited electric power can, without too great cost or trouble, have his own water supplies and his own fire fighting pump. Which leads up to the detail of:

Self Fire Protection — and Prevention

There has been a noticeable change in the attitude of the farmer toward fire suppression on his own property. In the past he has been a tough customer to make fire conscious. He doesn’t even now take very kindly to fire safety measures. Abe Martin the humorist used to say every farmer leaves a tree in a field as a cultivator garage. And the same policy of neglectfulness too frequently exists in his instituting of fire safety measures. Nevertheless, improvement is noted. Farmers are developing water supplies on their property. They are installing fire extinguishers. They are more cooperative with one another and with area fire fighters, in time of need than ever. They still are loath to make inspections, to locate their own violations, to permit outsiders to do so.

Electricity has come to the farm to increase conveniences—and fire hazards. Here approved lightning rods protect farm building wired for work.Gasoline and other volatiles are used on all modern farms, with increase in fire hazards. Such fuel should be stored underground.Kerosene and other oils for heating and power are standard equipment for today's farms. Store in elevated tanks, apart from buildings.Gasoline powered farm machinery is now the rule not the exception in today's farming. Blowers, such as this being repaired, require watching.

Photos courtesy National Board of Fire Underwriters From top to bottom:

A New Jersey rural fire where community firemen successfully used booster, small hose, and later big hose, pump taking suction from stock feed tank.

Photo courtesy National Board of Fire Underwriters

Education and Enlightenment

The education of the farmer continues apace, education that includes “selling” him on the wisdom of protecting himself and his family, his property and crops, from destructive fire. He is already “exposed” to the influence of radio broadcasting, and tomorrow will be on the television circuits. He gets his farm magazines, and his weekly newspapers, and, more than likely, a paper from the nearest city. And don’t underestimate the excellent fire prevention and fire protection work being done by the nation’s small down press! His children are being taught fire safety in schools the like of which were never dreamed of three quarters of a centurv ago. His township or district fire department is usually a hive of activity with social and other gatherings to which he is invited. Yesterday, a fireman was a rather nebulous person to the average farmer; he wasn’t sure that the fireman would be around when he was needed, and he questioned whether or not it was wise to even call on the volunteer in time of trouble. But that is changing. Already, the area fire fighters are making themselves and their services known in no uncertain terms. They are beginning to provide the farmer with the same sort of extra-curricular emergency service that their big city brothers are credited with. Burning off brush, rescuing animals out of wells, and so forth, are considered their legitimate tasks, no less than extinguishing fires. And. what is of even greater imoortance. pre-fire inspections of farm buildings and land by the volunteer firemen are for the first time an actuality.


We’ve mentioned road improvements, but although better highways and backloads. and the motor vehicles, have made for better, faster travel, they have also created conditions which can, and do seriously handicap the response and operations of rural fire forces. Traffic control in operating at rural fires, or other emergencies, is a serious problem today, and will be worse tomorrow. The local constabulary, even when aided by county and state police, are not always sufficient to cut off roads and direct traffic, handle motorists and the common curiosity seeker. If response of rural firemen is to be speeded, rather than retarded in the days ahead, the rural fire forces will have to develop some sort of fire-police traffic controls and highway supervision.

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