Ketchikan borough declares disaster in fire-station fire

a burned fire station
The aftermath of the April 9 fire at the South Tongass Volunteer Fire Department. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted last week to enact a disaster declaration for the recent station fire that devastated the South Tongass Fire Department. Mayors from the borough and cities of Saxman and Ketchikan issued the disaster declaration on April 12.

South Tongass Fire Chief Steve Rydeen choked up as he took the podium at the Assembly’s April 15 meeting. 

Normally, you see a grumpy old guy with no emotion. Tonight, it’s a little different. For the last 12 years I have poured my heart and soul into this department, only to have what happened happen,” Rydeen told the Assembly.

Rydeen was traveling out of Ketchikan when the fire broke out in the early morning of April 9. He said he received a series of calls from the company that manages the department’s fire alarm system just before 2:30 a.m. By the time the first firefighter arrived on the scene, the heat and smoke were too much to access the building. Rydeen said that one of the South Tongass fire engines, which was not in the building when the fire broke out, was able to respond at about 4 a.m.

“So that’s quite a long time. That fire burned in there for a long time,” Rydeen explained.

Rydeen said there were parts of the station where the temperature likely reached upwards of 1,500 degrees. The damage is extensive. Much of the gear that didn’t melt or burn up was ruined by smoke damage. 

Rydeen said that the investigation is still ongoing, though they believe the fire started in the vehicle bay around one of their engine trucks. It was one of five vehicles damaged in the blaze.

“That truck is where we think the fire may have originated but we don’t know for sure what started it. We had no lithium ion batteries, we had no battery equipment on it. So we’re trying to figure that out,” Rydeen said.

The fire chief informed the Assembly that the recovery from the fire isn’t going to be quick. He said it’s going to carry on for at least a couple of years. But he added that with his team behind him, it’s possible.

“I have the best of best volunteering, giving their time, they’re giving their sacrifices to this community. And I couldn’t have asked for better. That’s the bottom line,” Rydeen said through tears.

After Rydeen concluded his presentation of the damage, Borough Mayor Rodney Dial told him that the community feels his pain and that the borough stands behind him.

The vote to ratify the mayors’ disaster declaration passed unanimously. The State Fire Marshal’s investigation into the origins of the fire is still ongoing.

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