Fire Rakes for Pennsylvania Forest Fire Suppression

Young boys prepared to fight a forest fire somewhere in Pennsylvania. Today this would be unthinkable. Photo courtesy of PFHA

Wildland firefighters in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, have used rakes for years. They are sturdy, reliable tools, and when working a forest fire one seldom gives a thought to where they came from, or who invented them.

Charles Howard Rich was born December 31, 1860 to Mr. and Mrs. John Fleming Rich, in Richville (now Woolrich), Clinton County, Pennsylvania. He was the grandson of John Rich who founded the Woolrich Woolen Mills Company.  Charles entered Pierce Business College in Philadelphia in 1878, to study business and law, and graduated in 1880. He then enrolled at Allegheny College to study math and civil engineering. Later he studied at Jefferson Medical College, planning to make medicine his career, but failing eyesight caused him to abandon that field.

He returned to Woolrich to practice civil engineering and surveying. Rich opened a lumberyard in Woolrich in 1889. He served Clinton County as an Associate Judge from 1924 to 1930, and for that service he was referred to as “Judge” for the remainder of his life. Judge Rich was extremely active in local affairs including the Kiwanis Club, the Woolrich Boy Scouts, the Masons, the P.O.S. of A, the Woolrich Community Church, the Clinton County Historical Society, and the Clinton County Fish and Game Association. He served as a Fire Warden for 28 years.

He was an inveterate tinkerer and held several patents including a carriage axel oiler, a nut and lock for a carriage spindle, a rotary engine, and his most ubiquitous invention, the Rich Rake. From his patent application:

Patent application drawings for the original Rich Rake fire tool.

This invention comprehends the provision of a tool designed for use fighting forest fires or the like, the tool embodying a handle and head to which are secured a plurality of blades, the head being susceptible of adjustment so as to position the blades at various angles with respect to the handle, such as is necessary to permit of use of the tool in the capacity of-a brush cutter, a rake for leaves and brush, a fork or shovel designed to effectively handle burning brands, and to also provide a mulch hoe.

The tool was designed to use 4 blades, comprised of teeth fastened by bolts or rivets to an angle iron channel. The teeth were from hay mowing machines in use at the time. The angle of the head was adjustable. Patent Number 1469957 was granted on October 9, 1923, for the Rich Rake.

C.H. Rich’s patent application diagram for his second fire tool.

Rich also made a patent application on September 11, 1931 for a fire rake with a fixed head rather than the adjustable head. It had four mower teeth on one side, and a scraping blade above the teeth. To utilize the scraping blade the handle was rotated and the mower teeth pointed up. The patent was granted on January 9, 1934 as 1942901. The manufacture of the implements took place in Williamsport until the 1970s.

C.H. Rich’s rakes were in high demand, not only in Pennsylvania but across the country, and probably around the world. In the fall of 1947, Maine was hit with devastating forest fires that were some of the worst in the state’s history. The Rich Rake was a crucial tool as evidenced by an article in the Lock Haven Express on October 27, 1947.

C.H. Rich is buried in the family plot in the Woolrich Cemetary, Woolrich, PA

Judge Rich passed away on December 31, 1947 on his 87th birthday. He was survived by his wife, three daughters, a granddaughter and a great grandson.

Patent application for the Greider Fire Rake

Wesley L. Greider, of Quarryville, Lancaster County, patented a similar fire tool in 1933. Nothing can be found, other than the patent, of Greider’s invention and it is unknown if it was ever manufactured, or used in Pennsylvania forest fire work.

Today the adjustable head Rich Rake has largely been replaced by the Council Tool Fire Rake. The Council Tool Company was founded in 1886, and it is headquartered in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. From the Council Tool website (, “In the 1930’s, the Forestry Service approached Council Tool about manufacturing tools to fight forest fires.  That led to the development of the fire rake.  Known throughout the industry as the Council Rake, the product is still offered in our catalog today (Cat no. LW-12).” Council tools are American made.

Council Tool Fire Rake on the left and an adjustable head Rich Rake on the right. Tools from the Ivan Bretzman Collection, Mt. Holly Springs, PA.

Unlike the adjustable head Rich Rake (right), the Council Tool Fire Rake has a ring attached to the cross-piece that holds the teeth. A tapered handle, with the thicker end opposite where the firefighter grasps the tool, fits through the ring and keeps the head snug as it is pulled toward the firefighter while raking a line. The unit may be disassembled for storage and transport, a feature that is not readily available on Rich’s invention.  The length of the handle is either 60 or 52 inches long. The preferred length in Pennsylvania seems to be the shorter 52 inch handle.

Whether a firefighter is using a Rich Rake or a Council Fire Rake, they are undoubtedly one of the most useful tools on Pennsylvania forest firelines.

Patents – below are pdfs of the patent documents referenced in the blog above

C.H. Rich Adjustable Head Forest Fire Rake – Rich Rake Rich1

C.H. Rich Scraper Blade Forest Fire Rake   Rich2

Greder Fire Rake   Greider

Forest Fires In Snyder County, Pennsylvania

Speaking at the Grace Community United Methodist Church outside of Selinsgrove, about forest fires in Pennsylvania.

Last evening, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Snyder County Conservation District’s annual Awards Banquet. I spoke on the topic of Forest Fires In Pennsylvania.

Snyder County is not known as a particularly problematic area for wildfires. Shade Mountain to the south and Jacks Mountain to the north were large timbering areas more than a century ago. As the primeval forests were cleared, the slash left behind and the coppice burned.  Huckleberry bushes sprouted in the ash of the fires and became an important cash crop to the local farmers, and people struggling to make a living on the mountain. The Star-Independent newspaper published in Harrisburg reported on April 16, 1915: 

A mountain forest fire started yesterday afternoon on the south side of Shade Mountain, in Heister Valley. Last night the fire had extended over a stretch of several miles and large volumes of smoke are visible in Middleburg. The fire will likely cross to the north side of the mountain during the night. 

On April 20, 1915, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported:

Sunbury, Pa., April 20. —Fire raging in the famous Shade Mountain huckleberry district, in Snyder county, it is feared, will destroy the bushes there, where thousands of quarts of the finest huckleberries are picked yearly. It burned all day yesterday.  

Journalism in years past was sometimes colorful. From the Shamokin News-Dispatch, of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1932:

Shade Mountain Small Volcano

High Mountain Near Middleburg Scene Of Year’s Most Picturesque Fire

One of the most extensive and picturesque forest fires thus far this year broke out late Saturday on Shade Mountain, near Middleburg, climbed quickly to the top of the peaked mountain and greatly resembled a volcano by night. A large force of men fought the flames thruout [sic] Sunday and it was not until yesterday the fire was brought under control.  

Today, a great deal of Shade and Jacks Mountains are part of the Bald Eagle State Forest. The forest as well as the rest of the county does see its share of fires.  Under the direction of District Forester Matt Beaver, fires have been kept to a minimum. From 2000 to 2015 the Bald Eagle District experienced 263 fires that burned 1,654 acres. They average 16 fires per year that burn around 100 acres. The average fire size is 6.3 acres per fire which is the state average for that same period. 

As the snow of this latest storm passes into memory, the woods will dry quickly. Be careful with fires out there.

120 Years Ago – Forest Fires In Pennsylvania Were Problematic

Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock, Pennsylvania’s Father of Forestry. If you go to McVeytown, his birthplace, be sure to pronounce his last name with a long O as in Rowth rock, otherwise you will be soundly corrected.

Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock through his efforts as Chief of the Division of Forestry, in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, worked to acquire land for state forest reservations.  The purposes of these reservations was to secure land that would again become forests beneficial to all persons of the commonwealth, advance forestry culture on those lands, and protect sources of water supplies. Forest fires in Pennsylvania were a huge problem as fire followed the axe.

Finally on March 30, 1897, he was successful when P.L. 11, No. 10   Cl. 32 was signed. This act was known as the Unseated Lands, Purchase Authorized by the Commonwealth. It authorized the purchase for the non-payment of taxes for the purpose of creating a State Forest Reservation. The act required county treasurers to notify the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Commissioner of Forestry, that land was available for purchase.

It was then the duty of the Commissioner of Forestry to examine the location and character of to determine if the land was desirable for the purpose of creating and maintaining a forestry reservation. The purchase of the lands by the state was subject to the “right of redemption”; that is, for one year following the sale the original landowner could reestablish himself as landowner by paying the back taxes. The state was limited to paying no more than the amount of tax owed and in no case the price paid by the state should not exceed the assessed value, or $5 per acre.

Pennsylvanians have long been skeptical of government interference with their rights and this was (and still is) especially true when the government wants to acquire their land. The Pike County Press was one of the first newspapers to voice this concern as it related to state forest reservations. On March 26, 1897 it ran the following an editorial which in part said:

Nothing is said in the act as to how the county shall be indemnified for the loss of taxes on these lands. While the benefits which may accrue will he largely shared by the people of the whole state and presumably by posterity, yet the present burden of taxes for local purposes will he greatly increased only in the counties where the lands are taken, and they are very likely those least able to bear it.

Further on in the editorial the paper stated it was in favor of forest reservations but only if they could be protected from fire and timber thieves but it doubted it could. It concluded:

…we trust that while those who would be law abiding and conservators of the forests are suffering the penalty of increased taxation for sins they have not committed, those who have been persistent, notorious violators of the law may have a finger as large as a man’s thigh laid on them, and that not very gently either. If the state should take, and thus exempt from taxes half of the number of acres provided for, it would make “this one green spot” look considerably greener if the state protected its domain, and it would probably result also in large accessions to our Sheriff’s boarding house business…..

On May 25, 1897 an act of the legislature created the State Forest Reservation Commission that was separate from the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. The Commission consisted of five members. The first commissioners included Dr. Joseph Rothrock of West Chester; Mr. John Fulton of Johnstown, President of the State Board of Health; Mr. Isaac B. Brown of Corry, Secretary of Internal Affairs; Mr. Albert Lewis of Bear Creek, Luzerne County; and Mr. A.C. Hopkins of Lock Haven. The commission was charged with acquiring three reservations of not less than 40,000 acres each in the watersheds of the Delaware, Susquehanna and Ohio Rivers.

The First Pennsylvania Wildland Fire Engines

Mont Alto Fire Crew circa 1902

Firefighters are inveterate tinkerers.  If there is technology available they are quick to adapt to it and use it in the best way they can. Pennsylvania was no exception in using mechanization to fight forest fires.

The first wildland  crews used horses and wagons, or mules if they were available. It was the technology of the time and the best they had.

An adapted Model T believed to be in the Poconos in the 1920s.

When Henry Ford began production of the Model T than ran on gasoline rather than hay it made sense to adapt it to firefighting.

PDF&W pickup, setup for firefighting and ready for a parade, circa 1940


As the automobile – be it cars, trucks or other vehicles – developed, firefighters continued to adapt them to meet their needs. Pickup trucks soon became popular, especially in Pennsylvania.

Even though they were only two wheel drive, they were versatile, had high enough ground clearance to go into the woods, and could even be cleaned and decorated and be shown in parades. Firefighters love parades, and they love to shine up and show off their apparatus.

A new McNamara Engine in the Michaux District

But up until the late 1960s, wildland firefighting apparatus was an adaptation of existing vehicles.  Eugene McNamara was the Chief Forest Fire Warden and Chief of the Division of Forest Fire Protection in the 1970s.  One of his priorities was providing the best equipment and tools he could to the personnel on the ground doing the work. Thus the development of the “McNamara Engine”. In 1967, after a four year period of planning and development, the PDF&W took delivery of 10, of what can rightly be classified as the first, Type III Wildland Fire Engines.

In the late 1960’s foresters and firefighters were utilizing 4-wheel drive vehicles in a number of ways to combat fires. Government surplus Jeeps had been fitted with all manner of equipment. The “slip on” units consisting of a water tank, pump, and hose were beginning to find their way to the fire service on pickup trucks. When wildfire danger was low the slip on units could be removed and the vehicle in which it had been riding could be used for other duties.

The new McNamara Engines were built on a one ton, four-wheel-drive, Dodge WM-300 chassis. The Toreador Red trucks had a custom body built to hold a 300 gallon water tank, a Hale FZZ centrifugal pump rated at 150 GPM, and a smaller Hale 20 T portable pump. A booster reel carried 300 feet of ¾ inch hose. Another 500 feet of 1½ inch hose was stored onboard, along with 3 ten foot sections of 2½ inch hard sleeve intake and 1 ten foot section of 2 inch hard sleeve intake. In addition the apparatus carried 2 nozzles, 8 backpack pumps, 1 chain saw, 12 fire rakes, 2 shovels, 3 axes, 1 brush hook, 3 brush axes, 1 backfire torch, 4 hardhats, 2 fire extinguishers, a first aid kit, and a dual frequency radio. Two portable spotlights and two red beacon lights were mounted on the trucks.  

The last known surviving McNamara Engine – 2016

The bodies were designed specifically to carry the equipment listed and the vehicles sole purpose was fire suppression. But as Bill Vanidestine noted, “I had to find money to have the springs upgraded. The engines, when loaded with equipment overloaded the suspension system and had to be strengthened.”

The McNamara Engines were revolutionary. They were the first vehicles built from the frame up that were designed to be fire engines first. The idea caught on, and fire companies, crews, and the Federal and State governments continued to improve on the model.

The Federal Government supplied thousands of these Dodge pickups from Army surplus, in the 1970s.

Of course, firefighters still continued to re-purpose vehicles, and in the 1970s the Federal Government had an excess of vehicles that were easily adapted to firefighting.

U.S. Forest Service Wildland Engine, 2015

But, newer, faster, heavier, safer, more comfortable were features that were constantly strived for. Thus the development of today’s Type III.

Pennsylvania DCNR Wildland Fire Engine 2015

Whether the vehicles are called Engines, Type III’s, Type VIs, Squads, Patrols, Brush Trucks, or some other name, the new vehicles and today’s firefighters owe a lot to Eugene McNamara.

Mount Holly Springs, PA, Citizens Fire Company, Village Station, Boiling Springs, Patrol 236, 2015


The Pennsylvania Forest Heritage Association is beginning to collect photographs and stories of wildland firefighters and wildland fire engines.

Contact me if you have photos, or a story to tell and I can help you through the process.