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An Alaskan Fishing Villages Effort to Fight a Downton Fire

It Takes a Village…

I walked into the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) rain-soaked, tired, hungry and unbeknownst to me hypothermic. The retired firefighters called-in to refill the air tanks recognized symptoms in this newbie.  They told me to get dry, turnout gear, and go up the break room to warm up.  It was warm upstairs and I couldn’t believe the food!  People dropped off massive bowls of popcorn,  platters of white grapes, buttery lefse, various homemade “bars” and cases of pop. Handy food for firefighters on the go.

Warmed up with dry gear and a full belly I returned to the fire that took out a 1/4 of downtown.  The officers found a perfect job for this newbie, working the water cannon atop our biggest engine parked on First Street.  I would be safely out of the way, high above the smoke, fire, confusion, and noise of the  doomed hotel.

The problem with fighting large structural fires in a fishing village on an island surround by wilderness areas is neighboring departments can’t send crews and equipment to help. The other problem is the hidden infrastructure of a fishing village.  The wooden docks regularly drenched with seas spray connect to the wood-framed canneries which use an abundance of water which in turn connect to the wood-sided rain-drenched downtown businesses all supposed by creosote pilings.  Creosote is flammable. But the wood is soaked with decades of constant rains.

They asked me to shoot water into the  glowing remains of the hotel.  The water that survived contact with the flames and embers passed through the remains of floor boards to the piling beneath.  Meanwhile the hand lines protected other building and the hotel’s exterior walls.

From my position I could see Nordic Street, below me, and First Street, behind me, blocked off to traffic.  I recognized various people coming and going to the firehall on foot.  A crowd watched the action on the side walk across Nordic from the hotel.  The officers sent a senior firefighters to check on me every so often.  They told me tales of other large fires in our village.   The heat began drying the pilings.   The engines on Nordic Street moved further from the spreading fire. Exhausted firefighter tried to move  the supply lines accordingly.  I heard a  department officers yell something to the crowd.  They poured into the street, grabbed the supply lines, dragged them into position and returned to the sidewalk.  Even to a newbie like me knew the fire would take out the travel agency before it ran out of fuel.  So began a steady stream of friends and employees hauling computers and records from the doomed office to the future one a street away

Come dawn Forest Service employees on Prince of Wales Island needed the helicopter.  As this was part of my other profession I would go with it, confident that they’d me fine without me.  After all it takes a village to fight a fire .