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Econ 919 — Funding firefighting

Fire truck _ Shurtleff.jpg
Courtesy of Riley Shurtleff
The new truck was built especially for Cooper Landing Emergency Services. It replaces the 40-year-old truck the department uses today.

Southcentral Alaska is in the thick of its fire season.

On Thursday, Cooper Landing Emergency Services Fire Chief Riley Shurtleff was about 4,000 miles away near Louisville, Ky. He’s in the middle of a road trip to get a brand new CLES firetruck from the Fouts Bros factory in Georgia back to Cooper Landing, where it will replace the 40-year-old truck the department currently uses.

Shurtleff is amped. He said department is long past due for a new ride.

“Usually, the going recommendation is a truck shouldn’t be front-line for more than 25 years," he said.

But here’s the catch: CLES is a registered nonprofit. That makes paying for the new ride a bit of a challenge.

“We make our operational budget out of, predominantly, grants, ambulance billings, community donations and corporate donations, and a strict contract fee-for-service with the borough," Shurtleff said.

Those contract fees are for some highway-side services. But purchases like the new truck are covered through donations.

CLES supports a large stretch of Cooper Landing and beyond with fire and emergency medical services. Shurtleff said their services stretch from Mile 58 of the Sterling Highway, near the east entrance to Skilak Lake Road, over to the Seward Highway turnoff and through Mile 75, near Ingram Creek.

And its mostly staffed by volunteers. Shurtleff is the only full-time employee.

Shurtleff said there are only three other communities in the borough that have non-profit emergency service departments — in Lowell Point, Moose Pass and the Hope-Sunrise area. Cooper Landing’s department works in mutual aid with the latter two.

The others get funding from the borough or cities.

“Most everyone else is in a service area or is supported by a municipality," Shurtleff said. "And so to go out and ask for support — we’re not asking for gravy on top of anything. We’re asking for the bear bones. We’re asking to replace a truck that should’ve been replaced 15 yrs ago.”

The department’s current fire truck was also the first new vehicle it ever had in its arsenal. It dates back to 1982.

And Shurtleff said it’s been a great run.

"While we love the 1982, the 1982 is tired," he said.

For one, the truck is a gas guzzler. And when the department needs new parts, it has to go to eBay to find them.

What excites Shurtleff about the new truck is its capacity. It can pump 1,500 gallons of water per minute instead of 300 the current truck can do.

That’s a big deal because there are often no easily accessible fire hydrants up in the mountains,. The department will bring in water from Kenai Lake, for example, like it did to address a four-acre fire off the Sterling Highway last month.

“We’re able to send literally five times the amount of water than the current unit can," Shurtleff said.

The truck also has a larger cab, so it can carry four crew members instead of two. And Shurtleff said it still has off-road capabilities to get to hard-to-reach sites.

The new ride is coming at a good time for the department.

It’s the beginning of the busy season for wildfires. Dry, hot weather has fire responders on high-alert.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve had over a dozen calls, or a dozen different incidents where this truck would’ve been on those," Shurtleff said.

He said the department is fortunate that the community of Cooper Landing donates consistently. And it does a lot of fundraisers, including a golf fundraiser in Soldotna next month, on July 23 at the Birch Ridge Golf Course. This is the second annual fundraiser the department has held there.

It also has support from shipping company Matson, which is paying for the ferry from Tacoma to Alaska.

But otherwise, CLES is still relying on future donations to cover the truck.

“We’re going to be on a 10-year payment plan with this truck unless something large, or there’s a greater effort to support it," Shurtleff said.

Meanwhile, Shurtleff is making his way back north, expecting to arrive in Tacoma, Wash. next Thursday before putting the truck on the ferry up to Anchorage.

You can keep up with that journey on the Cooper Landing Emergency Services Facebook page.

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