Wildland Firefighter Foundation
Wildland Firefighter Foundation

Home / WLF TheySaid / Saving Lives: Fire Pumps in Wildland Firefighting

  • 05/13/2016
  • WildlandFire.com Team
  • 1 Comment

Guest Post by Gabriella Gerbasi, WATERAX.

The humble water pump is considered by some to be the greatest invention for fire suppression, saving lives and sparing property from fire devastation.

If speed and water are the two components in stopping fires, then portable water pumps were a necessity. Water pumps on wheels, often pulled by men, appeared in the 1700s in the US and England to supplement the work of volunteers passing water buckets from one to another forming a “bucket brigade.” Patents for the first fire engine pump, a twin cylinder single acting pump on a wheeled cart, were granted to Richard Newsham, a British entrepreneur. This invention allowed water to shoot up to 135 feet while the bucket brigade filled the cistern and men operated the cross handles.

Bucket Brigade

Horses pulled the fire pump wagon to the site around 1850. However, the firefighters had to walk or run to the location and often arrived much later than the fire pump. Eventually, steps and running boards were installed on the cart so that men could ride with the pump and be ready for action. However, the term “fire pump” was not used in documents until around 1900.

Historic Pump

The first Canadian portable pump for use in wildland fires was designed in 1915 by fire inspector H.C. Johnson while serving on the Board of Railway Commissioners. The Fairbanks Morse Company manufactured the pump consisting of a water-cooled, four-to-five horsepower, two-cycle, twin-cylinder engine and an attached flexible rubber coupling to a bronze rotary pump. Locomotives, automobiles or hand and horse-drawn carts moved the 130- pound pump with ease. In some Canadian regions, pumps were driven by dog sled. With this invention, a 70 men crew with hand tools building dry method fire lines was replaced by a seven-men team and one portable pump that could supply water at the rate of 20 gallons per minute.

Portable water pump innovations rapidly evolved resulting in fierce global competition, most notably, the Evinrude, Johnson and Pacific Marine Supply companies in the United States. However, “Watson Jack & Company (Wajax) ultimately came to dominate the global market for portable fire pumps.” 1  Eventually, competitors became partners. Wajax with Pacific Marine Supply of Seattle, Washington, formed Wajax-Pacific and became the fire division of the largest marine supply company on the Pacific west coast. Pacific Marine sold its manufactured gasoline-powered portable fire pumps and apparatus for the wood, logging and marine industries. In WWII, Pacific Marine designed and produced over 44,000 P-60 Handy Billy portable pumps purchased by the US Navy and were easily carried by two men. The Handy Billy was critical for use on ships that lost electricity. During WWII, the US War Department bestowed the “E” award to Pacific Marine for service above and beyond the call of duty.

When Pacific Marine’s fire division was acquired by Wajax Ltd in 1964, the name became Pacific Pumpers Inc. and solidified Wajax Ltd.’s position as North America’s leading forest fire protection products manufacturer. In the same year, the MARK-3® water pump was introduced on the market and became the standard portable wildland fire pump for forest agencies around the globe.

Historic Pump

Pacific Pumper, later renamed Pacific Fire Equipment Inc., formed at the start of the ‘80s. This new company expanded its focus to include manufacturing firefighting equipment for the US marine and industrial industries with its exceptional wildland firefighting client base. In 1983, Wajax Ltd. combined Wajax-Pacific Fire Equipment Inc. and Montreal-based Wajax Manufacturing which formed their Fire Control Division.

After ownership transitions, the current WATERAX brand has recaptured the legacy of the original Watson Jack & Co., Wajax and wildland fire roots. WATERAX products’ foundation is again multi-stage centrifugal pump ends moving water while generating high-pressure for wildland firefighting and other applications to transfer water over terrain and high elevations.

1 Pyne, S. J. (2007). Awful Splendour: A fire history of Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press

The views expressed are not those of this site, this blog or its affiliated companies. By posting your comments you agree to accept our terms of use.

1 Comment
  1. Smokey307
    July 24, 2016 Reply

    I am convinced the Mark-3 pump by Pacific is one of the most significant and persistent advances in fire suppression in the west. Very little of our wildland is accessible by engines. Most firefighting transportation is by foot. Frequently there are springs and streams in the back country that can be used to fight fire if only there were a way to pump it. Well, the Mark-3 is easy to pack in, easy to troubleshoot, and easy to set up. It is often used to refill engines near firelines. I know I am preaching to the choir about this pump. I can’t even count the number of times I have counted on this pump and I sold it for a year when I worked for a forestry and fire equipment company. Thank you Ms. Gerbasi for your short history. I knew most of this when I was in the industry in 1980-1981. It appears a lot has happened in the industry since then.

Leave a comment