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A Special Feature

"A pictorial history of the unique forest firefighting apparatus"
By Britton Crosby
First Posted January 2001 - Re-released April 2014
(Updated April 2014)


Page 1
The Story of Brush Breakers
 Apparatus Index Page


On this page
01 - The Story of Brush Breakers / Apparatus Index Page
                   The Story of Brush Breakers
                   The First Brush Breaker
                   Examples of Breakers, Forestry, Tankers, etc
                   Highlights of Fires & Apparatus in History
                   Feature Page Index
                   Apparatus Featured Index
                   Update History


      The story of the Cape Cod Brush Breakers begins with an understanding of the land and its unique forest fire history.

      Cape Cod, also known as Barnstable County, is a bent arm shaped peninsula protruding approximately 70 miles into the ocean off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. The land was created thousands of years ago by the retreat of glacial ice, which deposited clay, rocks, boulders, and a mostly sandy soil. Huge chunks of ice that melted formed many of the ponds, lakes, and rivers found across the area. The coastline is pocketed with many salt water harbors and bays, and numerous marshlands and wetland bogs. Inland areas, some with considerable hills, were covered by vast acres of evergreen pitch pine tree forests.

      Just "off Cape" on the mainland side are similar lands within what is known as Plymouth and Bristol counties. To the south of the Cape are the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket that also share similar natural conditions as the Cape.

      Strong, warm, southwesterly winds in the spring and into the fall tended to dry the forests making them as explosive as tinder when a fire started. The wind driven forest fires would frequently burn thousands of acres of forest unchecked year after year.

      Native "Indians" who lived in the area would cultivate their land and protect their settlements by "firing the woods" seasonally to reduce the undergrowth and thereby effectively manage to keep the larger fires from their lands.

      After the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and with the eventual inhabitation of the lands by more and more people, areas of forests were cut down to create farm lands and to build homes. Harvested wood heated homes and even enabled industry to flourish in the area.

      Inhabitants throughout history frequently faced many wild fires that threatened their lands, homes, and businesses. Fires that grew to thousands of acres would burn for days, creating billowing clouds of heavy, dark, choking smoke that filled the sky. Wind driven fires were nearly impossible to stop and frequently burned until weather changed or the fire reached a natural break such as water.

      In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fire towers were erected on high grounds so that spotters could observe and report incipient fires. During the 1920s fire patrol trucks worked in conjunction with fire towers to spot and attempt to quickly extinguish wildland fires even before some fire departments were organized.

      As motorize vehicles became more powerful and available in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond, a variety of fire apparatus designed specifically to address the dangerous forest fires were built.

      Forestry studies in the early 1920s found that the explosive nature of forest fires in southeastern Massachusetts rivaled conditions in California and other areas where fires rapidly outrun efforts to contain them.

      Many major fires over the years have claimed thousands of acres of wildland, numerous structures, and have claimed a number of lives.

      Brush Breakers are not utilized in other parts of the country the way they are here. Topography of the land and other factors make them useful here and over the decades they have been used to contain and control many fires which otherwise would have grown much larger and caused much more of a threat to lives and property.

      During the larger forest fires, brush breakers working in groups work to surround and contain the fires so they can be extinguished using water carried by the brush breakers. Tankers, or tenders as they may be called, position on dirt roads or other safe spots to resupply the brush breakers as they make trip after trip back into the fire until it is controlled.

      Over the years, fire tower spotters would observe smoke as fires began. Two or more towers would utilize compass lines and maps to cross up a general area of where the fire is located (way before GPS was even imagined). This information was then relayed via phone or radio to crews that would respond to the fire. A system of mutual aid was developed to manage the large fires that could quickly exceed the ability of one or two trucks to handle. Radio communications and basic incident command systems were utilized, again long before the formalized incident command systems and communications systems we consider standard today.





       The first known "Brush Breaker" was the Town of Barnstable's 1937 Ford housed at the Osterville Fire Station.

       The Town of Barnstable Forest Fire Department's Warden Bernard S. Ames, who was also the founding Fire Chief of the Centerville-Osterville Fire District in 1926, is credited with having this unique fire truck built in 1937. He worked with Carl Stark, who operated a garage in Osterville, and others, to design and construct a fire truck that could better respond to brush and forest fires that ravaged the Cape each year.

      They utilized a 1937 Ford Cab Over Engine (COE) all wheel drive chassis, installed a large water tank, approximately 800 gallons, added a fire pump built at B. D. Leonard's foundry up the street, and welded on an arrangement of steel bars to provide the protection and leverage that enabled the truck to drive into areas previously inaccessible to fire apparatus. The truck was designed to push over trees and brush as needed to reach and extinguish fires, ideally before they could grow very large. The truck came to be known as a "brush breaker" and it served as the inspiration for a wide variety of similar fire apparatus for decades to follow.

      As the story goes, the new brush breaker was first called into service on May 5, 1937 to battle a large forest fire in Hyannis, literally before the paint had dried on the new vehicle. As fate would have it, the truck either broke down or became hung up on its first response and was severely damaged by the fire that consumed nearly 2000 acres.

     The charred truck was quickly rebuilt and placed back in service. It went on to respond to many fires across southeastern Massachusetts over the next 15 years. The first generation brush breaker was replaced in 1952 by a new and more powerful second generation brush breaker of similar design. A third generation of this brush breaker was built in 1967.

     The Osterville Fire Station served as the Forest Fire Department headquarters and this brush breaker was staffed by members of the Centerville-Osterville Fire District. Also housed at the station in those days was the Town's forest fire patrol truck and the C-O FD's 1926 Maxim Engine 1.
     This feature chronicles the development and history of these unique forest fire fighting apparatus and the other vehicles that have battled forest fires over the decades since the first brush breaker was created.




      Before there were motorized apparatus, men brought water fire extinguishers to fire fires in horse drawn wagons. Buckets were used to fill extinguishers and pump cans for fire fighting.



      Not all Cape Cod towns had fire departments in the early 1930s and those that did fought brush and forest fires with pickup trucks and pumpers with minimal water tanks. Most of the hard work was still done by hand and was not very effective with larger fires.


      This unique fire truck belonged to the Dennis Fire Department in the early 1930s. It is equipped with a large hose reel and a variety of tools and equipment. Longer hose lines allowed men to reach fires well of the road, but still within the limited reach of the hose.




      This photograph of the original Yarmouthport fire station shows some of the home made fire apparatus that would have responded to brush and grass fires. Larger water tanks were the key to fighting fires where water supplies, such as hydrants or drafting sites were unavailable.


      This 1939 Ford "Brush Fire Battleship" was built for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation Forest Fire Service. Known as Truck 25 it was based at the Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth/Carver. The brush breaker had a 1000 gallon tank and the rounded front metal shield and side rub bars as designed by Charles L. Cherry who actually got a U.S. Patent for this design in 1941. This image is part of the Carver FD collection.


      Also built in 1939 was this 1939 Ford COE brush breaker. Barnstable County Forest Fire Department No.1 was built by the Robinson Boiler Company with a Marmon-Herrington all wheel drive transmission, 85 HP flathead Ford gasoline motor capable of about 30-40 mph, a 1000 gallon water tank, and 125 gpm pump. It was assigned to the Falmouth Fire Department from 1939 to 1957.



      In addition to fighting forest fires, brush breakers were often used for structural firefighting as well because they usually carried more water than pumpers of the day. This 1944 brush breaker, known as Bourne Engine 7, was typical of many of the trucks of that war-post war era having about a 600 gallon tank, a front mounted "structural' pump, and a rear mounted "pump & roll" fire pump. It was built on a Chevy military chassis. This truck was around well into the 1970s.



      The second generation of Barnstable County Forest Fire Service brush breakers began in 1957 with this Ford / Maxim 800 gallon brush breaker shown during a performance demonstration. This breaker, also known as C-15, was assigned to North Falmouth from 1957 to 1971. It replaced the original 1939 No.1 which was then sold to the Mashpee Fire Department.



      The Barnstable County Forest Fire Service built and operated a number of brush breakers over the years from the 1930s to the 1980s. This 1960 Maxim custom brush breaker carried about 1000 gallons. It replaced a 1949 Ford brush breaker. Maxim built several like this in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Breaker No.4, also designated as C-12, was assigned to the Dennis Fire Department from 1960 into the 1980s. 



      In addition to State and County forest fire apparatus, there were and are of course many brush trucks owned by local fire departments. Sandwich Breaker 153 is an example. It was built on a 1953 Studebaker former military chassis in 1973 by a local builder, Ted Young. It carried 800 gallons and was assigned to Sandwich Station 3 in Forestdale. Many departments have opted for using former military chassis as a way of reducing costs and maintaining a tough, durable truck with readably available spare parts. This truck was completely rebuilt in house by the Sandwich Fire Department in 2003 with the addition of a 1000 gallon tank and continues to serve as Breaker 463 in Forestdale.



      In the early 1980s the Barnstable County Forest Fire Service ceased to exist. The county brush breakers in service at that time were turned over to the departments that were operating them. The last brush breaker built went to the West Barnstable Fire Department. The 1967 International former military chassis / Ted Young brush breaker was built in 1982 with a 1000 gallon tank. It replaced the 1958 Maxim county brush breaker No.2 known as C-14.



      Many of the largest forest fires over the years were in the large Town of Plymouth. The Plymouth Fire Department has operated many brush trucks over the years and during the 1990s and 2000s the replaced an aging fleet with a modern fleet. Breaker 172 was built in 1990 on an International diesel all wheel drive chassis by E. J. Murphy. It carries 750 gallons and is an example of a slightly different style body from some other breakers. 



      The town of Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard had this brush breaker built in 2008 on a Freightliner all wheel drive chassis by Massachusetts brush breaker builder Bulldog. It has a 750 gallon tank, 300 gpm pump, and carries 20 gallons of class A foam. This truck protects a rural area with no water system serviced by a volunteer fire department so the breaker was also equipped with a front mounted, remote controlled nozzle that can be operated from the cab by one or two personnel.




      Another community with a long forest fire history is Carver. Carver operates several brush breakers from their three stations. The newest, Breaker 27 was put in service in 2013. It was built on a 2013 International chassis by the Vermont fire truck builder V-Tec. It is one of the most modern brush breakers in the area and a lot of time was spent designing this truck which replaced a 1991 International. The new truck carries 800 gallons, pumps 250 gpm, and is equipped with a class A foam system, front and rear winches, and has the ability to serve as a nurse tender shuttling water in the community without hydrants. Carver's 1967 International / Farrar Breaker 23 had served in reserve until delivery of the new breaker.





      There have been many major forest fires over the years. Scenes such is this were common across the Cape and in Plymouth County each year with many of these fires burning hundreds or thousands of acres. The 1930s saw a number of particularly bad fires, including the April 1937 fire that came out of the military reservation into Sandwich which took the lives of 3 firemen. A bi-plane can be seen in this photo, perhaps it was providing information on the size and direction of the fire.


      April 19-23, 1946 a large forest fire burned some 15,000 acres over an 8-1/2 mile path from the Cape Cod Canal near the Bourne Bridge into East Sandwich. The fire burned over several days and brought help from fire departments all over Massachusetts. A recently found State Forest Fire movie documents the fire, and how brush breakers and fire apparatus battled the blaze.


     The fire tower spotted a fire starting up in the Farm-to-Market Road area of South Carver on Monday May 25, 1964 at about 1"00 PM near where a large fire had been fought two days earlier. Just 3 minutes later, another fire was spotted in the Suther's Marsh Road area off Federal Furnace Road. Eight brush breakers from Carver and Plymouth responded to the Suther's Marsh Road fire. Apparatus from Myles Standish and Wareham responded to the South Carver fire. The Suther's Marsh fire was controlled in about 2 hours, but the South Carver fire continued to gain much headway and grew much larger. It moved east toward Charge Pond Road and Camp Cachalot at Five Mile Pond and Little Long Pond. The fire then jumped the Agawam River and burned on to White Island Pond. The Plymouth Fire Chief Arthur Lamb chose to take a stand at White Island Pond to block the north end of the fire and at Shangi-La Shores near Glen Charlie Road to the south. When all was said and done, over 1,000 firemen from Plymouth and Barnstable Counties battled the fires in gusty 30 mile per hour winds and tinder dry conditions. The fire burned 5,500 acres and destroyed approximately 30 cottages.



     It was 75 degrees on May 1, 1965. Winds were gusting to 35 mph from the southwest. At 12:54 PM, the Bourne fire tower reported a brush fire near Forestdale Road and Pocasset Road on the military reservation. Within minutes the fire was already growing rapidly and the fire tower reported the fire looks "real bad." Brush breakers from several towns were called in desperation as fire chiefs recognized the extremely dangerous combination of heat, wind, and dry conditions. Twenty minutes later the fire patrol plane advised that the fire had already burned 40 to 50 acres and was moving rapidly towards Sandwich. Even with mutual aid coming from across southeastern Massachusetts, the huge fire burned thousands of acres on its way to jumping the Mid-Cape highway at 2:20 PM and continuing to burn down into Sandwich village before being controlled.



     Approximately 2,000 acres burned around the PAVE PAWS radar installation at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (Otis ANGB) on April 22, 1988. Flames 60'-100' in the air were observed as the fire raged through the northern end of the base. Mutual aid came from two counties to fight the fire. The photo was taken from the County Patrol Plane P-18.






APRIL 27, 1938
      One of the worst forest fires in the history of Cape Cod was on April 27, 1938 in Sandwich. A fire that started in the National Guard camp at Camp Edwards grew quickly, eventually burning an area 12 miles long and 5 miles wide into the Shawme Crowell State Forest. Several firemen would become trapped by the fire and suffered severe burns. Three of them, Thomas Adams, Ervin Draper, and Gordon King, died from their injuries making this one of the worst fires in Cape history.
     A simple memorial is maintained by the State Forest Fire folks in a small park off Route 130 in Sandwich near where the men perished.




      By the People of Barnstable County
Who were trapped, burned, and died
fighting a forest fire April 27, 1938
Their supreme sacrifice should inspire
all of us to strive for the goal
they sought - the preservation
of our forests and wild life.




Smokey Bear
      The huge number of forest fires in the early 1900's across the country resulted in an advertising campaign to try to prevent or reduce the number of forest fires. In 1944 Smokey Bear was created. In 1947 the familiar "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" slogan began. The image of Smokey Bear with his hat and shovel are recognized by all as a reminder to be careful with fire to prevent forest fires. The Firefighters Memorial in Sandwich and many other examples stand as a reminder of just how dangerous forest fires can become. The key is Prevention.













Page 1 - The Story of Brush Breakers / Apparatus Index Page
Page 2 - Cape Cod Forest Fires History
Page 3 - Fire Towers, Patrol Trucks, Patrol Planes
Page 4 - Before Brush Breakers
Page 5 - The First Brush Breaker - 1937
Page 6 - Barnstable County Forest Fire Apparatus 1st Generation 1930s-1940s
Page 7 - State Forest Fire Apparatus 1930s-1940s
Page 8 - Cape Cod Brush Breakers 1930s-1940s
Page 9 - Plymouth County Forest Fire Apparatus 1930s-1940s
Page 10 - Forest Fires 1930s-1940s
Page 11 - Second Generation Brush Breaker - 1952
Page 12 - Barnstable County Forest Fire Apparatus 2nd Generation 1950s-1960s
Page 13 - State Forest Fire Apparatus 1950s-1960s
Page 14 - Cape Cod Forest Fire Apparatus 1950s-1960s
Page 15 - Plymouth County Forest Fire Apparatus 1950s-1960s
Page 16 - Forest Fires 1950s-1960s
Page 17 - Third Generation Brush Breaker - 1967
Page 18 - Barnstable County Forest Fire Apparatus 1970s-1980s
Page 19 - State Forest Fire Apparatus 1970s-1980s
Page 20 - Cape Cod Forest Fire Apparatus 1970s
Page 21 - Cape Cod Forest Fire Apparatus 1980s
Page 22 - Plymouth County Forest Fire Apparatus 1970s
Page 23 - Plymouth County Forest Fire Apparatus 1980s
Page 24 - Forest Fires 1970s-1980s
Page 25 - State Forest Fire Apparatus 1990s
Page 26 - Cape Cod Forest Fire Apparatus 1990s
Page 27 -
Page 28 -
Page 29 -
Page 30 -
Page 31 -
Page 32 -
Page 33 -
Page 34 -




01 - Index Page / The Story of Brush Breakers
                   The Story of Brush Breakers
                   Feature Page Index
                   Apparatus Featured Index
                   Highlights of Fires & Apparatus in History
                   Examples of Breakers, Forestry, Tankers, etc
                   Update History
02 - Cape Cod Forest Fires History
                   Forest fires in SE Mass
                   Historical Fires Cape & Plymouth
                   1938 Sandwich Fatal
                   Sandwich FF Memorial 1938 Fire
                   Smokey Bear campaign
03 - Fire Towers & Patrol Planes
                   Spotting smoke and finding fires
                   Fire Towers
                      Cape Cod
                   Patrol Trucks
                   Patrol Planes
                      Barnstable County
                      Plymouth County
04 - Before Brush Breakers
                   Firefighting by Hand
                   Filling Extinguishers
                   1920s-1930s Fire Trucks
                   1920s State truck
                   1930s Edgartown FF Truck
                   1930s Plym FF trucks
                   1930s Yarm trucks
                   Early Patrol Trucks

05 - The First Brush Breaker - 1937

                   1937 Ford TOB Osterville
06 - Barnstable County Brush Breakers - 1939-1950s
                   First Generation
                   1939 No1,
                   1941 No2,
                   1949 No3,
                   1951 No4
07 - Early State Forest Fire Apparatus - 1930s
                   State Patrol Truck
                   1938 Ford COEs
                   1939 Brush Breaker 25
08 -  Cape Cod Brush Breakers - 1930s-1940s
                   1938 Sandwich Ford
                   1940s Camp Edwards green
                   1942 COFD E4
                   1940s Dennis patrol
                   1944 Otis Diamond T
                   1940s Bourne
                   1946 Fal Dodge C30
                   1947 Bourne 7
                   1947 TOB Cotuit
                   1947 TOB Cent
                   1949 Bourne 9
                   1949 Bourne 8
09 - Plymouth County Brush Trucks - 1930s-1940s
10 - Forest Fires 1930s, 1940s
                   1930s Dennis Fire
                   1946 Cape Fire - Images from the video

11 - Second Generation Brush Breaker - 1952

                   Second Generation
                   1952 Ford TOB Osterville Breaker
12 - Second Generation Barnstable County Breakers - 1950s-1960s
                   Second Generation
                   1957 Maxim No1 C15
                   1958 Maxim No2 C14
                   1960 Maxim No4 C12
                   1963 Maxim No3 C13
13 - State Brush Breakers - 1950s-1960s
                   1964 FWD Breakers
                   1968 Int/Farrar
                            patrol trucks
14 - Cape Cod Brush Breakers & Tankers - 1950s-1960s

                   Brush Breakers and tankers
                   1950 Ford Mash E1 former 1930 COFD E3
                   1950 Dodge Mash E2
                   1950 Harwich Ford white elephant
                   1950 TOB Ford patrol
                   1951 Bourne Patrol 2
                   1954 Ford Chilmark
                   1955 Dodge Fal C33
                   1957 Mashpee 253
                   1957 Inter Har E2
                   1957 Dodge Yar E6
                   1957 Inter Plym patrol - Great Island
                   1950s GMC Dennis patrol
                   1950s Dodge Manomet
                   1950s Ford Halifax
                   1950s Carver 24
                   1950s Dodge Marion E4
                   1962 Int/Maxim TOB 212      
                   1965 Fal Tanker
                   1965 Sandwich
                   1967 Mashpee
                   1968 Otis
15 - Plymouth County Brush Trucks & Tankers - 1950s-1960s
                   1962 Onset PW
                   1964 Lakeville
                   1964 Marion
                   1960s Duxbury
                   1965 Wareham
                   1967 Middleboro Jeep
                   1967 Carver
                   1968 Wareham,/Rochester     
16 - Forest Fires 1950s-1960s
                   1964 Carver
                   1965 Otis-Sandwich Forest Fire

17 - Third Generation Brush Breaker - 1967

                   1967 Maxim TOB Ost 216
                   1969 Dodge TOB Cotuit 217
18 - Second Generation Barnstable County Breakers - 1970s-1980s

                   1971 No1 Fal C15
                   1982 WB B295
19 - State Breakers - 1970s-1980s
20 - Cape Cod Breakers and Apparatus 1970s-1980s
                   1970 Wellfleet 90
                   1971 Dennis 110
                   1972 Otis B9
                    1973 Hya 84
                    1973 Sand 153
                    1973WB T296
                    1975 Bourne 128
                    1977 Bourne 130
                    1976 Fal B20
                    1976 Chilmark
                    1976 Dennis F105
                    1970s Barn B204
                    1970s Otis T13
21 - Plymouth County Breakers 1970s-1980s
22 - Forest Fires - 1970s-1980s
                    Otis Fires

23 - State Forest Fire Apparatus - 1990s-2000s
                   Dist 1
                   Dist 2
24 - Cape Cod Forestr Fire Apparatus 1990s-200




Related Links

Massachusetts DCR - Bureau of Forest Fire Control
Forest Fire Lookout Association
History Early Fire Towers
Massachusetts Fire Tower Locations - Plymouth Brush Breaker Drill April 2006 - Plymouth-Wareham Brush Fires May 2006 - Sandwich Fire Tower 2006

Photos in this series are from various sources
including fire department and personal collections.











Page 1
The Story of Brush Breakers
 Apparatus Index Page



Cape Cod Brush Breakers
Special Feature