Discussions on implementing a Fire Station in Two Rivers call for Town Hall Meeting with Borough Mayor

Published: Jun. 30, 2022 at 7:57 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - This past Tuesday, residents of Two Rivers and Borough officials, including Borough Mayor Bryce Ward, met for a Town Hall Meeting to discuss the potential for a Fire Department and Emergency Medical Service in the area.

The community of Two Rivers is a short drive up Chena Hot Springs Road. This area is a non-fire service area, meaning there is no structural fire protection for the residents.

Recent wildfires and arson over the last several years have prompted residents to consider what it takes to assemble a volunteer fire department and what that would mean for the community.

“Last year, clearly when the arsons happened, that heightened the awareness for everybody that we literally have no fire service coverage,“ says Michelle Ethun, President of Pleasant Valley Two Rivers Volunteer Fire Association. “I think that coupled with the fact that it is difficult for families to move here and be able to secure mortgages when there is a lack of fire coverage, especially in consideration with the arson here last year... it is hard to close on a mortgage.”

She noted the lack of fire service also increases the cost of home insurance in the area - an added problem for new people who want to move to Two Rivers, as well as for residents trying to sell their homes.

The area is covered by wildland fire service, which makes the area limited to only the suppression of wildfires, not structural fires. The closest fire departments are North Star Volunteer and Steese Fire Departments which are over 20 minutes away on both ends.

In late 2021, an organization was formed after a series of arsons swept through the town. From that, the Pleasant Valley-Two Rivers Fire Association was established. Ethun said she and others formed the organization using other departments as examples.

“At the end of last summer, when we were still in the throes of the arson investigation, there was a community of outpouring of individuals that just wanted to help. We wanted to figure out how we could take care of this and what we could do next,” Ethun added. “That really coalesced with a small group of people who have served in some capacity in a fire department somewhere else before - which is good because they at least had some knowledge of what it meant to commit and what it meant going forward.”

With a little help from the Nenana Volunteer Fire Department, the non-profit organization has already formed a group of volunteers that have been trained to handle some medical emergencies. They also acquired a water tender, ambulance medical supplies, radios, and turnout gear.

“Essentially that meant that we were basically ready to at least perform some medical pages in January, but there is a bureaucratic process to get through,” Ethun continued. So, she said they formed their non-profit status, then created by-laws and started to go through the process, while at the same time recognizing there is also a training component. “It’s one thing to get through the bureaucratic hurdles of creating something, but then you have to be ready to serve,” Ethun said.

Because Two Rivers is a community in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, it requires concurrence by the assembly.

“The Alaska State Constitution lays out a requirement that in order to create a new fire service area, there must be a determination in the borough whether or not that area needs to be annexed to an existing area,” Ethun explained.

She said the Borough has a couple of options to consider. One is to make a determination of whether the department has to have an annex. “The Mayor did concur that he would go back and take a look, that he didn’t feel that the annexation was feasible,” she said. “Alaska State Constitution says that you have to make that determination.”

It is also up to the residents of Two Rivers to decide if they would like to have a MIL-Rate to service the area, or consider a non-fire service subscription or private coverage like Salcha Fire and Rescue has for their service area. Ethun said that is going to involve more conversations with the community. “They need to decide what type of service we want,” she said. “Do you want the Cadillac Variety that costs a lot? Or do you want the streamlined variety? Because that’s about pocketbooks for people.”

Ethun said this would affect those from roughly mile marker 12 up to 27 on Chena Hot Springs Road.

One benefit she mentioned that would come from this is for existing homeowners, and those looking to purchase homes. Once an area is determined to have a fire service area, meaning it is on property tax records, insurance companies go by what they call an “ISO-rating” determined by the proximity of an existing fire department. Ethun said at this time, the area has no rating.

She also mentioned that there are residents in the community that have homesteads and/or do not have homeowners insurance, and they raised their own concerns at the meeting.

“I think those are legitimate concerns,” Ethun explained. “If taxes were to go up but they are receiving that benefit, then that is something that the community has to wrestle with - again - how best to serve the community as a whole.”

Ethun says meeting with the Borough was the next step because the assembly ultimately has the final say.

“I think the good thing that came from the meeting last (Tuesday) night was we were missing that partner at the table, which was the Borough (assembly),” she said. “It was positive that people could speak their mind, and that Mayor Bryce Ward was listening to them. It was a needed step. The next step is a working step.”

More meetings and workgroups are scheduled as the community decides what services will look like, and what they are willing to invest in.

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