Perhaps the story of the Missoula Rural Fire District and its recently restored, vintage fire engine is best told through the lens of rehabilitation. 

First, there's the old fire engine: a 1961 Harvester International, hidden under layers of rust, pine needles and red paint faded to an obscure pink hue. 

Then, there's the Montana State Prison inmate who refurbished the truck: Brian Dean Adolf, who learned a new trade through the prison's Motor Vehicle Maintenance program so he can support himself on the outside.

Both the truck and Adolf have a storied past. Adolf was sentenced in 2008 for a pair of violent crimes in Butte, while the engine languished in a rural county west of Missoula and then in Missoula County since 1995.

"It was a little rough when the fire department brought it down here," Adolf said in an phone interview with the Missoulian, over a constant rumble of shop noises. 

"It hadn't been running and it was covered in pine needles. It took a lot of cleaning before we could even get started," he said. 

That was in March.

Now, the classic red fire engine, one of the first fire trucks the newly established rural fire department ever bought, is in pristine shape, thanks to inmates like Adolf, who spent countless hours working on the body of the engine.

He airbrushed the wood grain on the dashboard and inside the doors. He painted antique designs on the exterior, contouring the lines to give them a touch of depth. He also took creative license with the historical font, inscribing "M.R.F.D." on the back and the words spelled out on the side.  

"He's a good worker," said Adolf's civilian boss, Dan Kohr. "I have had zero problems with him, and it's been really gratifying to watch his progress."

It's also been gratifying for the Missoula Rural Fire District to have a piece of its history back in peak condition. 


Missoula Rural firefighters reclaimed the old engine from the West End Volunteer Fire Department in De Borgia in 2008, but when they researched the price of fixing the truck it was cost-prohibitive. 

"The costs just started stacking up," Capt. Paul Finlay said. "It just sat and sat and sat until we came across the idea. Everybody benefits from the project." 

Finlay said the idea came from firefighters in Butte, who also had a vintage engine – of the 1940s era – in need of repair. They used the prison program as a way to keep costs low, and as an extra benefit prisoners like Adolf learn a new skill and are paid hourly, albeit minimally.

Adolf says he earns about 85 cents an hour and is saving the money for when he returns to society in 2017.  

In total, the inmates spent 280 hours painting, fixing and installing $14,500 worth of parts, and generally restoring the engine to its former glory.

The inmates cut glass to match the traditional window size, created metal labels that identified the engine's original brand, and fashioned metal knobs in their shop to replace those that had fallen apart due to use.

"I couldn't say enough good things about the work that was done there," Finlay said, noting that he and the department were astounded by the meticulous attention to detail.

"The best part of doing a job like that is showing the customer for the first time," Adolf said. "When they see it for the first time, they get that 'I can't believe it' look in their eyes. For me, that's the best part. It makes me happy." 

Altogether, Missoula Rural Fire paid $22,500 for the restoration project, using funds donated by the families of deceased rural firefighters Richard Bertlin and John Jirsa.

The union also contributed a chunk of change to the project, explained Capt. Ron Lubke, who is also the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2457 president.  

"Our history is important to us," Lubke said. "We wouldn't be here today if not for the people who came before. It's important to preserve it and remember how we got to where we are." 

In that vein, the rural fire firefighters are currently in talks with Charter Communications to take over the old Lolo Fire Station that was built in the 1930s.

They hope to convert the building into a tiny museum of sorts, where they can proudly display pieces of their past, like the refurbished engine. 

The engine will also be used in community events and parades, as a tribute to the past and steppingstone to the department's future. 

The engine's community debut is set for the University of Montana Homecoming parade on Sept. 26 at 10 a.m. 

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