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Craftsman’s ‘Skyhydrants’ Put Damper on Fires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You know that big fire out in Griffith Park in Los Angeles last July? Bill Mensing helped put that out.

The one up by Holser Canyon this summer? That’s got the Mensing name all over it. The scorching Green Meadow fire of a few years back? That’s his work, too.

But the steadfast, 75-year-old Santa Paulan rarely gets credit.

Mensing’s one-man Santa Paula company, Sheetcraft, makes massive water-dropping tanks, the coffin-like boxes that attach to a helicopter’s belly to douse raging fires with a 3,000-pound mixture of water and soap.

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In nearly 30 years, Mensing’s made about 44 of his metal “Skyhydrants,” each by hand in his Santa Paula Airport workshop over a period of months. Most of the sturdy behemoths are still being used in locales as far-flung as China and Sardinia and as close to home as the city of Los Angeles and his home county of Ventura.

If Mensing were just a little worse at his job, he might be doing even better.

“They’ve [Ventura County] still got tanks that are 27 years old,” Mensing said. “There’s no built-in obsolescence. The only way to get rid of a tank is to crash.”

Mensing is a grandfatherly sort with a white shock of stand-up hair and a way with a corny joke. A longtime sheet-metal worker, he drifted into this particular niche years ago and has since become the go-to man for a metal tank, welded together and rock solid.

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And he continues doing what he’s doing out of an airport hangar, with little flash, in a world where even such esoteric industries as water-tank makers have marketing teams and public-relations departments.

Mensing’s competition comes in the form of the trendier fiberglass or carbon fiber models sold by Simplex, a company based in Portland, Ore., that has its own Web site, a laundry list of other product lines and gets write-ups in magazines like Consumer Reports.

Mensing says he appreciates the solidity and familiarity of metal.

How long do his tanks last? No one knows. He hasn’t had one fall apart yet.

So, lately, he does fix-ups. His last tank sold about two years ago at a price of $75,000, and two months ago he fixed a tank for Ventura County, which was damaged after a pilot landed with the tank doors open.

As the fire season drags on past its expected Nov. 15 end date, the county Fire Department knows it couldn’t work without the giant bucket in the sky.

“When we’re making those drops, we’re in inaccessible terrain,” said Dan Shea, chief pilot for the county Sheriff’s Department. “It’s very rugged and very steep, and we could never drag a hose line [in there]. [The tanks] are key.”

Mensing made all three of the department’s tanks. He started 30 years ago when the county asked him to make a tank and has continued his work to the point that nearly every tank in Southern California bears his imprint.

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“He’s a one-man show,” said John Davitz, the director of maintenance for the county Sheriff’s Department. “He’s salesman, director, CEO and worker.”

And, Mensing does it cheaply. He knows he can’t compete with a bigger company. All he can offer is the personal touch.

“He’s an honest businessman, almost to his company’s detriment,” said his son Kelly. “He does things the way they used to do business. Thirty-five years ago you didn’t have people who went out and did marketing.”

Kelly and his two sisters and two brothers grew up in Mensing’s shop, driving rivets from the time they were young children. Kelly will take over Sheetcraft when, or if, his father ever retires.

In any case, there’s no room for him to expand. Water tanks aren’t a growth industry. It’s steady, slow work. Just enough for one man.

“I take pride in the fact that [a tank] has longevity and survivability,” Mensing said. “I never cut corners.”

* FIRM NAMES NEW VP

Michael W. Simpson will pursue partnerships for Med-Design Corp. B8

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