It had rained hard just before, but the sun popped out just in time for Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department and the community to celebrate the Grand Opening of the new fire station building Saturday, June 19th at 13105 Seward Highway, milepost 5.5. The station’s yellow and red fire trucks gleamed as they sat outside the three large bay doors, ready for action, while inside the fire hall, lines of folding chairs and tables with green tablecloths stood along with framed photographs depicting events from the fire department’s three-plus decade history.
A handsome cake, made by Susan Willet, with white frosting and green-borders, with the BCVFD logo sat waiting to be enjoyed, with the words “Bear Creek Fire Dept. Volunteers: Serving the Community Since 1977,” and the fire department’s logo on it: a bear with traditional hand- firefighting equipment on one side, and ladder and fire helmet on the other.
Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Chief Mark Beals, sharply dressed in full blue and white fire-chief regalia smiled broadly as he greeted the visitors who arrived to view and celebrate the accomplishment, 10-years in the making. Interspersing chatting with state lawmakers and borough representatives, he seemed most at home showing groups of families and children around the new facility, pointing out some of the cooler equipment. He knew many on a first-name basis as they were the children and spouses of his group of dedicated volunteers and board members.
“This is a great accomplishment and I appreciate all of the community support,” Beals said.
Bear Creek area residents voted earlier to approve a $1.4 million bond measure for the new fire station, and it passed by an 86-87 percent vote. By doing so, area property owners agreed to collectively help pay off the construction loan over the next 20 years, and it increased their mill rate by one point.
“That’s pretty unheard of in this day and age for people to vote stuff in like that,” Beals said.
The public support also demonstrated the value that residents place on their all-volunteer fire department, staffed by almost two dozen highly trained personnel who spend time every week training, and caring for the equipment, and regularly drop everything to rush to the scene of a burning building, a wreck on the highway, or a person undergoing a heart-attack.
The building’s construction was also dependent on the fire department receiving a couple of million dollars from the state to access the bond. With a mostly supportive delegation of representatives, especially former district representatives Sen. Gary Stevens and House Rep. Paul Seaton, and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey, and later Sen. Cathy Giessel and KPB Mayor Mike Navarre, they were able to cobble together the bulk of the initial funds over a period of many years. They will also need the continued support of borough and state lawmakers to complete the construction’s design, including those who attended the grand opening: Mayor Navarre, Senator Peter Micciche and Rep. (House Speaker) Mike Chenault.
The new $3.4 million two-story building, built by contractor Marsh Creek, replaces the smaller, one- story 42-year old fire station and its various storage buildings, and combines all of its needs into one main facility. With a generous public parking area to the north, and a separate exit on its south side for the fire trucks to respond to emergencies, the configuration should shorten the average response time by at least a minute or two, Beals said. Firefighters and EMTs will no longer will have to run from one out building to the next gathering together the clothing and equipment that they need before getting into their trucks.
The large main room, which houses the fire apparatus and vehicles, has a separate tiled wash-room, where grimy firefighters, returning with toxic chemicals on them, can wash themselves and their clothing and gear off—which is something they never had before, said volunteer Marc Swanson. They also will have a new heavy-duty gear washer. Another separate room is available for filling their tanks with compressed air, a noisy process, which will be nice being able to do in another room, he added.
One side wall is dedicated to hanging uniforms and apparatus, within quick and easy reach of each of the trucks. There’s also a small kitchen area for those on duty, or attending trainings.
Meanwhile at the main public entrance, one enters a foyer with a tiled floor depicting the fire department’s logo. There are two private offices for the key positions, and a generous community room that will be available for trainings or meetings. They can also be used by the public, without interfering with station operations. There’s another door out to a staircase leading to the second floor.
Upstairs is a mostly unfinished area that will be available for expansion, or to house future tenants, visiting volunteers or instructors, or even local flood or emergency victims. There’s an exercise room with weight training and cardio exercise equipment, and a sound system.
Part of the costs of finishing the structure, especially the second floor, may come from a $100,000 legislative appropriation, said Mayor Navarre, but under today’s tighter borough and state budgets, it may take several more years before funding is available to complete the remainder of the building’s interior work. The talk Saturday, as picnic food was prepared for the grand opening, was about the inconvenience caused by the fact that all of the kitchen equipment powers off any time anyone opens the emergency doors. While certainly inconvenient at times, it was built that way as a precaution so that when volunteers race to emergencies, a fire won’t start up in the kitchen.
The idea of the new building came about in 1994-95 when the department purchased a rescue pumper truck, and the volunteers soon realized that they were running out space to house new vehicles, Beals said. As plans were discussed, they also uncovered some issues with the floor of the old building. Originally, the thought was how to improve or expand the original buildings, but after much evaluation, the board determined it would be preferable to start anew.
As folks headed out to the public parking area to watch four young boys from Cub Scouts Pack 327 raise both the blue and gold Alaska flag, and the American flag on the new building’s flagpole, all of the volunteer’s beepers sounded simultaneously for a resident having an emergency at Salmon Creek trailer Park. It was then that the practical design of the facility proved itself. Volunteers ran back inside the building and jumped into vehicles parked by the bay door entrance and exited from a separate driveway, without interfering with any of the people or vehicles parked on the other side of the building. Some noted admiringly that it would not have been the case with the way the former buildings were laid out.
Everyone then pledged allegiance before crossing over the newly planted lawn to the building’s three-bay side for public speeches and a prayer for the volunteers who put so much of their time and lives on the line, and for the vehicles that will be housed in the new building, followed by ribbon cuttings at each of the three station bay doors.
“I just want to let everybody know how exciting it is for me,” said KPB Representative Sue McClure. For five years she’s been attending board meetings, and having people bug her about getting the project funded, she said. But now that it’s built, and up and running, all the volunteers and the people of Bear Creek in particular should be very proud, she said.
Unspoken during the celebration, but hovering over all the merriment, was a special board meeting planned for 7:30 pm. Monday July 21st, to discuss the future of the fire department, especially that of its longtime leader Chief Beals, who Mayor Navarre recently asked to take a temporary leave of absence following two years of certain personnel conflicts and complaints.
Beals has refused to take that leave while complaints are further investigated and disagreements discussed over the working relationship between the 30-year volunteer fire chief, the mayor, his borough-hired firefighting training chief, and certain administrative assistants. A main point of contention is who should have supervisory authority over who when there’s a longtime volunteer chief, while also paid staff borough personnel who answer to the mayor.