Remember that inner juvenile fire lover that used to burn deep inside many of us? The one who had a healthy respect for fire mixed with just a little fascination.
We're talking about the kid that used to grab dad's lighter or mom's wooden kitchen matches and head out to the back yard to melt some old toys, or the one that used to find the biggest stick possible to throw on the campfire before dad smartly kicked it out in a shower of sparks and curse words.
Maybe the fire department was called, maybe it wasn't — and we're not judging — but yeah, we know you're out there, and if your parents and Smokey the Bear didn't completely hose down that inner burning desire, a Whatcom County-based company has got the piece of machinery you need to see.
Bellingham equipment manufacturer Eterra announced in a press release the launch of what it's calling the "World's First Ever Skid Steer Mounted Flamethrower."
Why on Earth, you ask, would you want to build a mobile piece of construction or landscaping equipment that can shoot flames up to 70 feet? Why on Earth wouldn't you? Sometimes a bottle of lighter fluid or an aerosol can of WD-40 just won't do.
That's right — FLAME ON!
“With the flamethrower, we just wanted to showcase what we can do," said Robert Leib, president and owner of Eterra sister company Skid Steer Solutions Inc. "And we wanted to have fun. We’re a small company, but we produce products that we’re really proud of."
Showcasing their work
Mounting a flamethrower capable of spraying flames that can probably be seen from space on a boom arm that would make NASA envious certainly is something to be proud of, but the real reason Eterra invested more than two years and "a lot of money" in the project, Leib said, was to get more likes and shares social media and showcase the boom arm.
Leib is known to carry a small camera with him and shoot video of just about everything he's doing, but he admits none of his videos had managed to go viral. So he and members of staff started brainstorming ideas for how they could gain some notoriety.
"I said, 'What would be a really good viral?'" Leib said. "All of sudden, from behind this cubicle pops Austin (Simpkins), and he says, "Ahh, a flamethrower? I was going to buy one anyways. We should make one.' And I go, 'A flamethrower, is that legal?' And he said, 'Oh yeah — in 48 states, including Washington!' ...
"The next thing I know — literally five minutes later — I'm calling the guy who advertises flamethrowers and I'm picking his brain on it and telling him what we're doing. They make just a backpack one, and we took it and made a full robotic style machine-driven system. ... We just took the whole thing, put it on steroids and threw it on a machine to see if it would work."
And just like that, one of the coolest — errr, hottest — pieces of machinery was born.
Just for the record, yes, the fire department has been called a time or two when Leib's neighbors saw him testing the flamethrower.
If the main purpose was to gain some notoriety and show what Eterra's boom arm can do, consider it a complete success. It's a can't miss for social media, though it needs a catchy nickname — we'll go with "Little Sparky," though you can't go wrong with "The Incinerator" once you see this thing in action.
“If you look at the flamethrower, it’s polished aluminum, everything is machined, the parts are just beautiful on it," Leib said. "And that’s what our attachments look like. Everything we do is first class.”
Leib and his crew already had plans to showcase their flame throwing work of art at a motocross event at CenturyLink Field in Seattle before organizers backed out, he said. But it's now on its way to the East Coast for another exhibition in early July, sure to draw even more fans to the company's website.
Eterra and Skid Steer Solutions got their start in Everson about 20 years ago, originally manufacturing and shipping loader tracks out of Leib's small garage. According to their press release, the company became one of the first in the skid steer industry to commit attention to online space and began to grow and diversify.
Skid Steer Solutions Inc., which is now headquartered in Bellingham, is actually three smaller companies, the release said — Skidsteersolutions.com is an online marketplace for skid steer attachments and equipment, Skid Steer Genius specializes in electrical controls and components for machines and Eterra is the manufacturing arm of the company.
"Eterra creates really cool attachments," Leib said. "We try to do the things that no one else is doing. Most of the people that start in this business, they jump in and do buckets and forks and grapples and everything else. That's the thing we don't want to do. What can we do that's really cool that would be a really nice value-added product that we can produce here that would be high quality?"
In the words of Simpkins, "Ahh, a flamethrower?"
The company is now home to 15 employees — and owner of the hottest piece of machinery west of the Mississippi River. Innovating the world's first flame throwing skid steer was a momentous task, the release said, requiring commitment of employees at all three of Leib's companies and their years of experience.
The Skid Steer Mounted Flamethrower is still under development, Leib said, and will retail for $35,000, but heck, it's worth the price of admission just for a fiery demonstration. Leib said Eterra was uncertain if it would sell the units at first because of the cost, but they've been getting "lots of inquiries."
Fighting fire with fire
Many of those interested parties, he said, are from fire departments, which visualize using it to set backfires to combat wildfires, but others also show interest in a number of Eterra's other, less flammable attachments for the boom arm, such as mowing and landscaping tools.
“A long time ago I realized, ‘hey, we’re just a small manufacturer, and we can’t be the cheapest, but we can be the best,’” Leib said.
If nothing else, they've definitely shown they know how to light a fire in style.
"There's people that get it, and there's people who don't," Leib said. "Some people say, 'WOW, that is the coolest thing!' And you can see from the shares on Facebook, and people are passing it around and making really cool comments. Then there are people concerned about the pollution, or whatever. ... We're just trying to have some fun and showcase what our company can do."