OUZINKIE — It only cost $1 for Travis Sheppard to buy a fire truck for Ouzinkie, but it took months of searching before he got the chance to spend that dollar.
Sheppard is chief of the department that serves the small town’s 178 people. He took over the position in February and was quickly saddled with a big problem when Ouzinkie’s 30-year-old fire truck blew its engine during a maintenance check.
For the past six months, Sheppard has been working to find a solution.
“We’ve got the Code Red, but that’s just for defensive operations,” Sheppard told the Kodiak Daily Mirror “That’s not going to save a house.”
Project Code Red trailers are the only form of fire defense in many Alaska villages, and there are currently 138 trailers distributed throughout the state, Alaska State Fire Marshal Kelly Nicolello said.
The trailers each store 600 gallons of firefighting foam and firefighting equipment, but it typically isn’t enough to save a home, only keep the flames from spreading further.
Despite the danger, Nicolello said it’s common for villages in Alaska to go without a fire truck. In most cases, it’s because the village can’t support the cost of maintenance. In others, it’s because there simply aren’t any roads.
Alaska state statues require law enforcement throughout the state, but they don’t require fire protection. The responsibility of fire protection falls on the shoulders of the municipal governments, many of which can’t afford to buy fire trucks.
“The decision to get a fire truck or to have a fire department is purely a local decision,” Nicolello said. “We still have holes where there is no fire protection at all.”
Sheppard wasn’t satisfied with Ouzinkie’s Project Code Red trailer, so he sought help from anyone who would listen — he called area departments, sent emails to people in the state and even reached out to the Western Fire Chiefs Association, a group that works to support and develop fire chiefs in the 10 western states.
People told him to apply for the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and hope the money came through. He applied for the grant over the summer, but is still waiting to hear a response.
In early October, Sheppard received a call he had been desperately hoping for — someone had found him a truck. Ouzinkie Native Corporation CEO Greg Strong told him that the Municipality of Anchorage might have a truck available.
The Municipality of Anchorage typically replaces fire trucks every 10 years. The trucks usually go to auction, but on occasion they will be sold to cities or villages that need one.
“I’m really happy it worked out,” said Jim Vignola, deputy chief of operations for the Anchorage Fire Department. “I’m glad we had a surplus apparatus. In this situation, Ouzinkie needed an engine. We know it is going to a good home.”
On Oct. 19, Sheppard and Ouzinkie fire volunteer Pete Muller Sr. traveled to Anchorage to check out their new vehicle. The two spent a weekend training and running tests on it with the Anchorage Fire Department. On Sunday, they began the long drive from Anchorage to Homer where they boarded the ferry to Ouzinkie.
Ouzinkie’s new fire truck is a 1998 Freightliner with a 500-gallon tank and can pump 1,500 gallons of water per minute. It weighs around 32,000 pounds without water, and seats five people in the cab.
This truck is larger than Ouzinkie’s previous truck, so it will be housed in the city’s generator building, not the fire station. It is automatic and drives like an SUV, but is longer and wider.
Since it is older, it has a few quirks — one of the backlights doesn’t work, and two of the overhead lights inside the cab don’t turn off. Still, the truck is in good condition, and Sheppard plans to fix the small problems.
“It’s a good apparatus,” Vignola said. “It’s been regularly serviced and well taken care of. It still has long life. It’ll still do what it needs to do.”
Purchasing the same truck new would cost between $350,000 and $400,000.
The engine itself was sold for $1, but including travel costs, Ouzinkie got it for less than $1,500.
The city of Ouzinkie and Ouzinkie Native Corporation contributed to bring the fire truck down from Anchorage.
The drive to Homer was smooth, although not without a few second stares as the two firefighters fueled the truck at different gas stations along the way. One of those taking a look was Capt. J. Scott Merrill of the ferry Tustumena, who walked off the ferry to see the fire truck for himself before it was loaded.
“You never know what you’re going to see,” Merrill said. “You do haul some unusual things.”
Once the ferry started moving, Sheppard started to relax. The toughest part about receiving the truck was working out the logistics of how he could move the truck from Anchorage to Ouzinkie in a limited time frame, he said.
“This is the last ferry for Ouzinkie until April or May of next year,” he said. “I was trying to get all of this done in the amount of time we have to get on this ferry to get to Ouzinkie, otherwise we would’ve had to barge it, and that would’ve cost an arm and a leg.”
The sun was shining Monday as the Tustumena pulled up to the Ouzinkie dock and was greeted by students from Ouzinkie School and residents eager to see their new truck. People cheered as Muller and Sheppard brought the truck off the ferry, and kids immediately jumped aboard once it was parked.
The fire department held a water demonstration to show off the truck’s capabilities.
“I’m absolutely stoked,” Ouzinkie mayor and assistant fire chief Dan Clarion said while he watched the water demonstration. “It’s quite a step up.”
After the demonstration, Sheppard loaded the kids on the fire truck and took them for a ride around the city with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Before heading to a cookout to celebrate the new piece of equipment, Sheppard and his team loaded their firefighting equipment onto the new truck. Parked in place, it now waits to answer a call that everyone hopes never comes.