Business Heats Up for PRO Serving Firefighters

A California company keeps busy providing restroom service to fire camps
Business Heats Up for PRO Serving Firefighters
These photos were taken at the camp located at the Hyampom, California, airport. According to Case Blanken, "The airport has really no facilities and it is definitely remote. So power is all produced by generators and potable water has to be hauled in." (Photos courtesy of Case Blanken)

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Case Blanken “didn’t know a thing” about portable restrooms when he started his business Butt Hut Comfort Stations in Redding, California, about eight years ago. The 59-year-old California man had run a used car lot his whole life.

But after serving the needs of workers in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina (Blanken had one trailer with shower and laundry facilities as well as some generators), he realized there was money to be made in portable restrooms. “I thought that it could be a really good business. The money is very good … in emergency relief … (but) you have to be able to put your life on hold. It’s not for everybody.”

But Blanken found it was just right for him. Today, in addition to operating his used car business, he (along with partner Don Kane) owns 200 portable restrooms, from Satellite Industries, Armal and PolyJohn Enterprises, which they rent out exclusively to fire camps in northern California. His headquarters are 150 miles north of Sacramento and about 100 miles from the Oregon border.

“Everything I have is out,” Blanken said in mid-August, with fires burning near the fire camps in Hayfork, Hyampom and Willow Creek. Most of these fires, he says, were started by lightning.

Blanken says this year has been the busiest he’s had. Coincidentally it’s also the fourth straight year of drought the state has seen; 2008 was another especially busy fire season. The season typically runs July through September.

But while northern California often is plagued with forest fires, it is still a volatile and uncertain market. “I might not get any work next year,” says Blanken. “It’s feast or famine.”

Blanken serves fire camps established by the U.S. Forest Service as well as the California Fire Department; the camps typically stay in one place, not moving with the fires. Blanken estimates the camps house about 1,100 to 1,200 people, mostly firefighters. “It’s a large operation,” he says.

Most of the camps, he notes, are quite far from the fires themselves, and he’s never lost a unit to fire. “Typically, we’re not in the line of fire at all. They plan these things out very well.”

Units are serviced twice a day, and some of the restrooms are located in remote venues, maybe 40 miles from the camp itself.

Needs change daily, and Blanken never knows what each day will bring. “We’re so busy trying to keep everything going. At some point, you pull out your hair and wonder how you can keep it going.”

He believes this fire season will be an especially long one. “I have a feeling this thing is going to last clear until it starts raining,” likely in October or November.

But even though he considers his portable restroom business a side business, he doesn’t mind being on call 24/7.

“The challenge was always the exciting thing to me. I think I’m a risk taker.”


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