From the applause of 50 Mackey Lakes residents, it appears the borough mayor's assessment was right on: they appreciate Hotshot firefighters, but don't want a Hotshot crew camp set up in their neighborhood.
"There's no question about the quality of these guys," said Mayor John Williams during a community meeting Thursday evening. "The question is where."
A number of the residents who were crowded into the second-floor training room of the Central Emergency Services Mackey Lakes fire station yelled, "Not here."
The residents' pleas apparently were heard.
After meeting with his staff Friday morning, Williams said the borough administration and the Hotshot contractor have agreed that "the location proposed is most certainly not the proper location."
Instead, the Hotshot camp will be set up on borough-owned land across the Sterling Highway from the borough landfill outside of Soldotna.
He said the site, which has an existing water well that will be tested, is "tucked back in the woods about 300 feet from the highway."
CES and borough Land Management officials had met earlier with Chugachmiut Fire Crew representatives to consider the possibility of siting the camp behind the Mackey Lakes fire station.
On land leased from the borough, the camp would consist of five mobile home trailers on a building pad with a driveway leading to the camp, a water well and septic system and electric service extended to the camp.
The Mackey Lakes firehouse site is no longer being considered.
Williams said, "... plans will continue to develop with regard to our desire to protect the lands from fire this summer."
Though all but forgotten under a winter's worth of snow, 55,000 acres in the Caribou Hills burned last summer after a man sharpening a shovel sent sparks into dry grass and the man reportedly was unable to stop the fire from spreading. At least 53 cabins were destroyed in the fire.
This year, the state Division of Forestry and Chugachmiut are negotiating a contract to base two 10-person Hotshot fire crews on the Kenai Peninsula to respond to wildfires, according to Marcus Mueller, land management officer for the borough.
Hotshot crews are among the highest trained wildfire firefighters in the country.
Chugachmiut Division Director Charles Sink told the Mackey Lakes residents at Thursday's meeting, Smoke Jumpers and Hotshot firefighters "are like the Navy's SEALs and the Special Forces."
"They are the crews at the front of the fires, turning the fires around to protect your homes," Sink said. "These guys, every year, put their lives on the line."
"We're still anticipating a bad fire season," CES Chief Chris Mokracek said. "We like having the resource."
Several Mackey Lakes residents said they feared for the peace and safety of their neighborhood if the Hotshots crew members were based there.
"I'm not sure I'll feel safe to leave my home unguarded," said one. "Will they have daily urine tests?"
Another wanted to know if Chugachmiut had independent criminal background checks done on Hotshot members.
As Sink and two Hotshots crew bosses fielded the questions, one resident finally apologized to the Hotshots "for the borough putting you in this position against this hostile neighborhood."
Williams then said it was he who asked the Hotshot leaders to attend the meeting after he heard a number of community residents raise questions about the character of the crews and questioning whether convict crews are used in Alaska as they are in the Lower 48.
"I chose to have (the Hotshot leaders) here to describe who they are," Williams said.
Resident Dan Furlong asked, "Why plant a mobile home park next to a beautiful, quiet community?"
Mueller said the Hotshot crews needed trailer pad space and quick deployment access to the state forestry headquarters on the Sterling Highway, about two miles away.
Because the proposal was to have the fire camp built approximately in the middle of the five acres CES owns at Mackey Lakes, Mueller said he "did not see this as being in the middle of a residential area."
He said the property affords the ability to build the camp out of sight of Mackey Lakes Road and out of view from others in the community.
The residents, however, disagreed.
They also protested the fact that what was once to be a small fire station in their community has grown to become a CES fire training center with stacks of Conex boxes and junk cars used as props for live fire training.
Mokracek said in the three years he has been chief, this is the first he has heard about residents not wanting fire training at the Mackey Lakes station.
Williams said he first wanted to address the Hotshot fire crew camp, and would take up the issue of the fire training facility location at a later date.
After visiting the alternate site across from the borough landfill, Williams said the Hotshot leaders agreed it would suit their needs.
"There's a lot of work they can do there as training for their mitigation work," Williams said.
When Hotshot crews are not fighting wildfires, they will be doing mitigation work around the Kenai Peninsula to reduce fuel loads as a wildfire preventive measure. The crews are expected to be based on the peninsula during the next five fire seasons.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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