Gakona Fire Chief Describes Answering Call To Tazlina Fire

 Community Service Taken To New Heights Challenges Of Trying To Save Buildings In Rural Alaska With Huge Distance & Water Issues Gakona ...

 Community Service Taken To New Heights

Challenges Of Trying To Save Buildings In Rural Alaska With Huge Distance & Water Issues

Gakona VFD/KCAM Facebook

Last Sunday, Jason Severs, the fire chief of the Gakona Volunteer Fire Department, was finishing up services at Old Paths Baptist Church, where he is pastor. That's when he heard there was a structure fire at Tazlina River Trading Post. Jason and several others from the church, who were also firefighters, rushed toward the scene. They could see the column of smoke from far away.

Tazlina is four miles from the church. Along the way, there's a fire hall. "The Tazlina fire trucks were already leaving from there," Jason told the Country Journal on Tuesday. "The engine and the tanker truck left. We took the rescue truck from there. Other people grabbed the other engine from Glennallen." 

Then, said Jason, "Two firefighters brought our tenders down there from Gakona. An engine came from Silver Springs. A tender came from Silver Springs." This made 8 volunteer fire trucks at the scene – all full of water. "Every truck in the valley if it's in a fire house has water in it," the fire chief said. Even in winter. 

Two more fire trucks arrived, bringing the number to 10: A tender from Kenny Lake and another from Chitina.


 Running Out Of Water

The firefighters set up their vehicles at the Tazlina parking lots. "There was an engine set up on the top side of Tazlina Store, closest to the highway. Around the back, there's a bottom side – that's where the warehouse was," said Chief Severs. "We had an engine at the upper parking lot and an engine at the lower parking lot." 

There was also a 4,000 collapsible water holding tank – a "drop tank" – on each side of the building. 

It was a big fire. Tazlina Store, its warehouse, and its side building with Kendra's Kreations, Casa De La Arte and Connecting Ties, was larger than you might think. Unknown to many people there was a large warehouse on the back, under part of the store.

The firefighters went through all the water available to them at the Tazlina station. "There's a storage tank at Tazlina. That was emptied. There were storage tanks at the Glennallen station, and that was emptied. And then Silver Springs fire station has an artesian well. All the water that came to the fire after the other stations were empty came from the artesian well in Silver Springs."

How did the fire start? Ultimately the state fire marshal will determine what happened. It seemed though, "The fire started in the back somehow, somewhere...  It got underneath the offices, and all that on the side where Kendra's and all that was. Then it got into the store, and there's a basement underneath the store, and it got into the basement. And then it went from there." 

A Hard Place To Fight Fires

The Copper River Valley is as large as West Virginia. It's entire population, though, is very small: probably somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people at this time. This makes any kind of emergency response, including fighting fires, especially difficult. 

"The issue that you have is there's no paid firefighters out here," Severs said. "There's very limited personnel and water. When Mendeltna Creek Lodge burned down – it's an hour and a half to get to Mendeltna. You live remote, you don't have a paid service that's five minutes down the road. The number of volunteers is declining."

Working The Fire Into The Night

Sunday was a very long day. "The fire started probably around 1 o'clock. We were paged out at 1:30. We still had active flames up to midnight." While the building was burning down, ammunition from the sporting goods section of the store, along with propane tanks were blowing up.

It was a personal tragedy for the Horrell family. "Don was there and also Jimmy was there." So were many others. It was all hands on deck, with people coming from many miles away. "Everybody showed up. Delta Medical showed up. They provided oxygen, where the firefighters could get relief and rest." People brought pizza and doughnuts from Glennallen. Tom Huddleston at Old Town Copper Center Lodge brought hamburgers. "People went out of their way to support the firefighters. We appreciate that." 

But – 

"The building was so large. We did everything we could; we were there for 12 hours." And "The fire's not over when you leave. All the hose has to be drug out and dried and put on the truck. All the air packs – they had to be refilled." An air pack is a self-contained breathing apparatus that firefighters wear so they don't breathe dangerous smoke directly into their lungs. "They had to be refilled. We have a compressor that refills them. The trucks had to be fueled up. They sat there in idle for 12 hours," said Jason Severs.

It's hard, being one of the helpers. "There was smoke coming from everywhere. We ran out of water. The trucks weren't getting there in time. It's nobody's fault. It's remote. People were coming from a great distance. We ran out of water. It's where we are..."

What Can You Do?

When local people see a fire like this, we turn our attention to what we can do. What can we do to keep our homes safer? What can we do to try to help.

"Make sure your chimneys are cleaned regularly. Make sure you have working smoke detectors throughout your house. And call 911 if you have an emergency," the fire chief said.

The Copper Valley community needs more dedicated volunteers. "If somebody would like to volunteer with any of the fire departments there's an application they can fill out. They can contact their local fire chief and get an application from that fire department. They go to the training meeting, and they will be issued gear," said Severs. They'll also learn what they can about fire operations and fire service.

Local people are regularly trained when they're firefighters, he said. "We practiced a bus wreck three years ago. We just had Firefighter 1 training out here, which was nationally recognized fire training, in 2018. Every month we practice. We pull hoses. We use Jaws of Life. We practice extrication. We practice hands-on operation of the truck, operating of the fire hoses. All that goes into firefighting and rescue is trained on a monthly basis."

The Copper Valley is a huge, remote, dangerous place. For decades, it has relied heavily on volunteer service. For centuries, it has had a limited population base, and long distances that have to be traveled. The valley depends on its people. There's nobody else you can depend on.

"We're very limited in our funds and do the best we can with the funding we have available," 

To contact Jason Severs and learn more about what you can do to help your neighbors, call 320-0503.


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