Grass Valley firefighter John Russell has been fighting on the front lines of wildland fires for nearly 20 years, and of all the things he’s learned in his decades of experience, he knows that it can be done better, more efficiently. So he is making it just that.
When a fire strikes, Russell and his crews work to stop it from spreading by “cutting a line” around the perimeter of the fire. The line consists of trenches and berms and can be backbreaking, grueling and slow work. Several years ago Russell started examining the tools used for such work and experimenting with designs to improve them.
“The tools haven’t been reconfigured since the ’60s, and I felt the industry needed tools like these to get more accomplished and cause less fatigue for the user,” Russell said.
Russell’s tools are designed to move more material than standard tools. He began designing and building them as a hobby up at the Washington Ridge Conservation Camp, where he’s a fire captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. One day he called a distributor to share his ideas.
“They weren’t interested, so I thought I’d just do it myself,” he said.
Wanting to keep things as local as possible, he took his sketches to a teacher at Lincoln High School, whose students did CAD drawings. He then submitted those drawings to a manufacturer in Southern California who experimented with different metals. The material they developed is confidential but, according to Russell, is the strongest metal used in fire tool construction today.
“They can hold a sharp edge for a very long time, twice as long as your standard tool, and the heads are all top of the line,” Russell said.
Russell introduced his first tool, the Chingadera, and launched J.R. Fire Tools last February. The company’s tagline is “Cut Line in Less Time.”
The Chingadera has proven to be one of the more popular tools due to its chopping aspect, which allows it to cut through brush, roots and grass and dig big trenches and widen and scrape trails. His company now produces nine different tools, including a retractable hoe and the Pounder, which has a pounding hammer on one side (to pound wedges into trees) and a hoe on the other side for cutting line. Both tools were introduced to the industry by Russell.
“All our tools have unique features. Besides strength and holding edge, they’re curved to sink into the earth. They’re not flat,” he said.
The tools also have interchangeable heads and handles so firefighters, trail builders and landscapers can switch them around at will. Everything is also replaceable and, therefore, designed to last forever. The majority of his products are patent pending and are catching the eye of several departments and distributors. Russell, along with his wife, Mya, who handles the day-to-day office responsibilities, recently filled a large order for Forestry Suppliers Inc., based out of Mississippi and one of the largest nationwide distributors of fire and forestry equipment.
The Elk Creek Fire Department in Colorado had the opportunity to use the tools last year with firefighter Ryan Tinkey noting, “They were top quality, American-made tools” and having “never seen a better made wildland tool,” according to a review in Hub911.com.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association has been placing orders, and shipments have been going out almost regularly to trail builders in Europe. The tools are available locally at B&C Hardware in Grass Valley and Russell points out they are ideal for landscapers and “aggressive gardeners.”
B&C will be redesigning the J.R. Fire Tools display in the spring to better showcase Russell’s increasing line.
“They sell really well,” Josh Webb of B&C said. “Once people see them, learn about them and compare them to other tools, they really like them. They also like the fact that they’re American made and local.”
“I just want to make the fire departments and the people who use these tools happy,” Russell said. “Cutting trails and fire lines is hard work, so if we make that easier for them, we’re doing what we set out to do. We’re still getting the word out. People are slowly realizing these are the best tools out there. I wouldn’t have attempted it if I didn’t believe that.”
For information, go to www.jrfiretools.com.
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.