Number of families without fire service is growing

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The number of families in the Fairbanks North Star Borough living in areas without fire protection is growing.

Two weeks ago Ann Ginn watched as her house burned to the ground. In the end, nothing remained of the home off of Youngberg Road.

The family lost practically everything. But with a fund-raiser put on by Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where Ginn works and generosity of others, they have recovered somewhat. They've put a down payment on land for a new house in North Pole -- well within reach of the North Pole Fire Department.

''It's a whole different ballgame when you watch your house burn down and nobody is there to help,'' she said. ''It's a snap of reality.''

The Ginns are one of the six families living or working outside the borough that have lost either a home or their livelihood to fire this year.

Roughly 9,000 of the borough's nearly 83,000 residents could find themselves, like Ginn, watching their buildings burn because they don't live in an area protected by a fire department.

In what is known by the borough as tract 19, which consists mostly of the Murphy Dome and Chena Hot Springs Road area, the number of people has grown by 2,000 in the last 10 years, according to the borough. Most of that area has no fire service.

Some don't mind taking their chances.

''I hope to remain outside the fire service area,'' said Donny McKee, owner of Two Rivers Lumber at Mile 23.5 Chena Hot Springs Road, just across the road from Tacks' General Store, which burned down on Memorial Day. ''It gives everybody a false sense of security.''

The idea of Two Rivers forming a volunteer fire department or joining a fire service area has been shot down several times in the past, McKee said. ''I'm not willing to pay any more taxes.''

McKee relies on fire extinguishers and a phone triangle that he said would bring people to a fire in minutes.

In the case of Tacks', store owner Dick Stenach said having a fire department in Two Rivers wouldn't have mattered. With high winds, efforts to control the flames would have been futile. The business was insured.

The state marshals' office said Friday the cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

''Not being in the fire service area and not having fire suppression, it's almost like a crapshoot,'' said Tom DePeter, deputy state fire marshal, while inspecting the remains of Tacks' on Tuesday. ''If you're not in the fire service area, you have to take precautions.''

The borough does provide ambulance services and will dispatch fire departments outside a fire service area if a life is threatened. Permission has to be granted through borough emergency services director Tim Biggane.

''The fire departments have an obligation to provide protection to the citizens that are paying for it,'' Biggane said. ''It's a hard thing to tell homeowners that they're outside a fire service area.''

Chena-Goldstream Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann said he has received several calls from out-of-area people asking for help when their property is on fire. In each case he has had to refuse.

Firefighters from the state Division of Forestry have often been the only ones to respond to a fire beyond fire department boundaries. But they don't attempt to extinguish a structure fire.

Division of Forestry, North Star Volunteer and Steese Area Volunteer fire crews responded to the Tacks' fire because high winds threatened to send embers into the surrounding woods.

''It's really something we're not trained to handle,'' said Tom Kurth, fire management officer for the Division of Forestry in Fairbanks. ''Our focus is to contain that wildland fire to the smallest area possible.''

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