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Busy firefighting season keeps boot maker on its toes

Posted: Thursday, October 05, 2000

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- While weary firefighters look forward to the end of the West's wildfire season, White's Boots Inc. is beginning to return to business as usual after helping to wage the battle far from the fire lines.

Nearly 100 White's bootmakers and production workers turn out firefighting boots at a factory in industrial east Spokane. Though nowhere near the flames that have consumed nearly 6.7 million acres, mostly in the West, White's workers sense a connection with the firefighters and their need for heat-resistant, sturdy footwear.

''During the fire season, you can actually feel the pace pick up, because people take it so personally,'' said Alan Roberts, White's vice president and chief financial officer. ''They're really proud of the role they play.''

White's has responded to several urgent pleas from onsite firefighting commissary managers this summer.

''They say, 'Can I get 50 pairs to 100 pairs of boots by next Friday? We'll pick them up at your factory,''' said Gary March, White's vice president for manufacturing and a former bootmaker. ''Other times, they ask us to send them by Greyhound bus straight to the fire lines.''

White's typically increases production in the early summer as fire season intensifies.

''We felt we were probably looking at a big fire year this year, so we started boosting our production,'' Roberts said. ''And, as it is, we still ran out. So lately, we've been shipping them as fast as we can make them.''

Fire season typically stretches into November in Southern California, and some firefighting agencies now are restocking boot supplies for next year.

White's, which moved to Spokane in 1915 more than 50 years after its founding in Virginia, has produced the only specialized firefighting boot used in this country for several decades, Roberts said.

White's also makes handmade boots for loggers, farmers, ranchers and industrial workers, and offers outdoor clothing and gear as well.

In a typical summer, firefighting boots account for 40 percent of White's production. This summer, that figure has been 80 percent.

As a result, the 500 or so White's dealers around the West have been delivering bad news to customers eager to see orders filled.

''If it's a nonfirefighting boot, we've been telling people they'll have to wait as much as 12 weeks,'' Roberts said. ''They're actually very understanding. People recognize we've got a long history of supporting wildland firefighting efforts.''

White's firefighting boot design has changed little over the decades.

The sole features heat-resistant materials and is screwed to the shoe bottom rather than glued. The upper is made of unusually thick, 8-ounce-weight pieces of leather that are hand-sewn together. The boots lack the heat-retaining steel toes common to other types of work boots.

Bootmakers shape the boot by hand using a last -- a foot-shaped form -- and frequently handle custom orders from people with atypical feet.

Underwriters Laboratory periodically inspects White's factory processes to ensure quality. The boots also meet heat-resistant and other protective standards established under the National Fire Protection Act, Roberts said.

The manufacturing process is laborious. Beginning bootmakers typically produce just a single boot a day. The company's swiftest and most experienced bootmaker can make 10 pairs a day.

White's top-of-the-line model -- the Smoke Jumper -- costs $347. Other firefighting boots produced by White's are sold under the Buffalo and Hathorn brand names, and range in price from $238 to $273.

Customers can send worn boots back to White's and have them rebuilt for half the cost of a new pair. The heel counter, sole, and other components are replaced.

''They can be rebuilt many times over, and they last that much longer,'' Roberts said.

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On the Net:

White's Boots Co.: http://www.whitesboots.com/



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