Alaska editorial: Alaska should help villages with training, firefighting equipment

Posted: Sunday, August 27, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The fire in Hooper Bay earlier this month destroyed the school, teacher housing, 14 private homes, a grocery store, steam baths and sheds. More than 70 people were left homeless, and damage estimates exceed $30 million.

Conclusions? There are two.

• Kids shouldn't play with matches.

• Too many Alaska villages are ill-equipped to fight fires.

The Alaska Village Initiatives' Project Code Red has tried to help on both counts, delivering $7.5 million in self-contained firefighting units and training to 101 villages in the past five years.

That's been done with federal money. The nonprofit group also has asked the Legislature to create a four-person, $4-million-a-year state Office of Rural Fire Protection to provide training, education and grant-writing expertise to villages trying to start or improve fire departments.

So far, no luck. In light of this year's Bush fires, however, legislators would be wise to reconsider this investment. Fire losses in Hooper Bay, King Salmon, Kwethluk, White Mountain and New Stuyahok - where two men died - total in the tens of millions of dollars, and much of the rebuilding money likely will come from federal and state treasuries.

A little more attention to prevention may cost some up-front money, but spare the state in the long run. More importantly, prevention and a stronger first response may save lives, homes and businesses.

The Bush doesn't have the means to fully protect itself against fire as well as Alaska's larger cities; a standing fire department in every village isn't going to happen. Bush living has its risks, and limited fire, police and medical response is one of them.

But Alaska has the means to cut the risk and fortify the firefighting response of Alaskans who live off the road system. Villagers can do the heavy lifting - witness the residents of White Mountain, who bought a fire truck from Nome and hauled it over the tundra after a drive on a frozen bay. That truck helped village firefighters save the school gym when fire struck in February.

State Sen. Donny Olson from Nome said legislation for a greater state contribution to village firefighting has gotten little attention in the Legislature. Maybe it takes a blaze like Hooper Bay's to enlighten lawmakers to the wisdom of prevention and preparedness.

Firefighting help is a fundamental public safety service and a smart investment for the state.

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