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The city of Kodiak is getting closer to replacing its current firehouse. City officials have picked a location for the new station and an architecture firm to design the building, but with a price tag that’s expected to be somewhere around $18 million, finding the funding is still a challenge.
Deputy Fire Chief Frank Dorner has been with Kodiak’s fire department for 22 years. In all that time, the department’s been housed in the same building on Lower Mill Bay Road. Dorner said the building’s condition has deteriorated over time, and this year, long term water damage – evidenced by long brown streaks running down the station’s walls – got noticeably worse.
“And now it’s eaten through and coming down both sides of the wall,” said Dorner. “The sheetrock got so bad it actually started falling out this year.”
Wet crumbles of sheet rock came down on top of one of the department’s engines. The ceiling blowout was also right over where firefighters keep their boots and jackets. That section of ceiling was removed, and there’s now a patchwork of thick plywood and plastic where the hole was. The department also has to tarp its oxygen tanks in case water seeps into the supply room.
The firehouse was originally built from cinder blocks in the 1940s as a public works building. The city added two wood-framed structures in the 60s and 70s. They now sit in a row like three concrete boxes.
Today, the 13-person fire department works in coordination with two other volunteer departments on the island. But Kodiak’s city firefighters are responsible for medical calls and hazmat response on the island’s road system.
Veterans like Dorner point out that the damage is more than just a leaky roof or water damage here and there. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the region, exposing the weaknesses of the entire structure
“The earthquake in 2018 created quite a bit of stress fractures and just odd damage,” said Dorner. “There being three separate structures that were put together, you can see where they shifted. There’s actually parts of the station where you can see light through the wall now.”
City officials are well aware of the building’s deterioration. Structural engineers are called every time there’s another quake and often there are patches to be made. It’s costly. But there’s also another looming issue; the firehouse sits in the tsunami inundation zone. That means every time the tsunami warning goes off, the firehouse needs to be evacuated.
“Obviously and especially with the recent tsunami evacuations and earthquakes we’ve had, we need to replace this firehouse as soon as possible,” said Kodiak’s mayor Pat Branson.
A parcel atop the hill on Mill Bay Road – near the ice rink and on safer high ground – was picked by Kodiak city council last summer to build a new station. A Palmer, Alaska-based architecture firm has also been selected to draw up plans for the new building. But it will be expensive.
Kodiak city officials haven’t received a full cost estimate for a new station yet, and they’re in the process of finding money for the project. Branson said Rep. Don Young helped secure $7 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for rural development – and they’re working on the rest.
“What we have now for funding is the Governor did put in his G.O. bond proposal $18 million for the Kodiak new firehouse,” said Branson.
But bonds are still a form of loan, and Kodiak’s state lawmakers say that right now, other funding opportunities are out there.
“Unfortunately I don’t think that there’s a lot of support in the legislature for a G.O. bond,” said Kodiak Republican House Speaker Louise Stutes. “Not when we’re getting billions from the federal government and oil is as high as it is.”
The billions she is referring to is from federal infrastructure money. Stutes and fellow Kodiak Republican state Senator Gary Stevens have been taking colleagues from the Legislature on tours of the city’s fire department for years. Stevens said that this year, they’re hoping their work pays off.
“We’re going to try and get it in the capital budget when that comes along,” he said. “We’re just in the process now of beginning the work of what the capital budget will include. It’s probably not going to be a large capital budget, but I think it’s very important that we get that item in there if nothing else.”
Branson said patching together funding sources is all part of the process.
“This is how you put together big capital projects, you look for the funding and different avenues, piece it together and make it a successful and funded project,” she said
Dorner, the second-in-command at the firehouse, said he’s looking forward to cutting a ribbon on a new fire station for the department to work out of.
“You spend a third of your life here, just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean you don’t come to work,” he said. “Guys spend a lot of time here and it is a part of home.”
He said whenever the city’s ready to break ground, he’ll be there with a shovel.