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At rescheduled meeting, Assembly members praise fire response

Gastineau Apartments blaze, power cut postponed Monday meeting

Posted: November 7, 2012 - 4:22pm  |  Updated: November 8, 2012 - 1:09am

Mayor Merrill Sanford and other members of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly roundly praised firefighters, city staff and others who responded to the fire that engulfed the top floor of the Gastineau Apartments Monday night at a rare Wednesday afternoon Assembly meeting.

The Assembly was originally set to meet Monday night, as usual, but the fire and the ensuing power cut to downtown Juneau’s electrical grid forced its rescheduling for Wednesday.

Sanford said the response by Capital City Fire and Rescue, as well as by the CBJ Water Utility, and by individuals and businesses that chipped in to provide water and snacks for emergency responders at the scene, was commendable.

“If you know a firefighter or a fire person and you see them on the street, say thank you,” said Sanford, who is a former volunteer firefighter himself.

Sanford also acknowledged the assistance of the Sitka Fire Department, which he said contributed several firefighters to help deal with the blaze and its aftermath.

Deputy Mayor Mary Becker said other organizations which reacted to the fire, such as the American Red Cross of Alaska, the Glory Hole and city staff at Centennial Hall, also deserve praise.

The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at Centennial Hall shortly after the fire began (http://bit.ly/PES2Jz).

“There were, what, 30 or 40 people who were displaced from this?” Becker asked. “So I know we’re not finished with that. There’s still going to be quite a bit that needs to be done in this community to help those people. But not only did our citizens, but our nonprofit groups … came out and were right there helping.”

The fluid communication and collaboration between city staff responding to the fire was an “impressive group effort,” said Assemblymember Jesse Kiehl.

“Everyone was right on the game,” said Kiehl.

But Kiehl also noted the “rumor mill” produced claims of fatalities among emergency responders and other false reports during the fire. He suggested the city could work out a way to communicate more rapidly with the public and debunk such rumors.

“I know that the clerk’s office has worked in the past, done some preliminary work toward what the city might be able to do to push information out in situations like that,” Kiehl said. “And there are challenges, but I’d certainly like to work with our manager and our clerks to pick that back up.”

“I’m sure that we’ll be looking at our incident command system,” Sanford responded, mentioning the possibility of setting up a public information office to handle situations like the fire emergency.

Assemblymember Carlton Smith said he thinks the fire underscored the need to reassess fire risk downtown, while Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker said it highlighted what he identified at an Assembly retreat last month (http://bit.ly/SuH9qJ) as his top priority: increasing Juneau’s available housing.

“This is a very serious issue for our community, and I think that what I would suggest is that the chair of the Committee of the Whole, Deputy Mayor Becker, appoint a special ad hoc subcommittee to convene that workshop for the Assembly with the builders, financial institutions and property-owners to hear what needs to be done by this city to allow them to work to provide housing in this community,” said Wanamaker, referring to an idea he proposed that won fellow assemblymembers’ verbal support at the retreat.

Sanford replied, “That would be good if we could get that going with staff and coordinated and moving forward.”

At the meeting, the Assembly also voted unanimously to repeal the Dec. 31 sunset date on the CBJ property tax hardship exemption, amend the penal code to allow privately operated shooting ranges within one-quarter mile of a road to operate, and appropriate about $5.7 million for the runway safety area improvement project at the Juneau International Airport.

Approval of all three ordinances was recommended by City Manager Kim Kiefer.

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