Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 8:48 PM on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When government works well, potential for disaster minimized

When fishermen go out to sea, they go knowing that sometimes the worst can happen and their boats might sink beneath them. That's why mariners keep an eye on the storm and their survival suit zippers greased. Most fishermen don't expect to lose their boats in a devastating blaze on land, though. That's what happened last Friday when a fire in a boat shop at Northern Enterprises Boat Yard torched four good boats, including a few just about ready to be christened.

Our sympathies go out to those fishermen, their crews and our thriving marine trades industry. We hope they'll be able to rebuild quickly and get back on the water soon. More boats didn't burn thanks to the prompt efforts of volunteer firefighters from all four lower Kenai Peninsula fire departments. In boat disasters, usually we thank the U.S. Coast Guard, but here enormous gratitude goes to the women and men of the Homer Volunteer Fire Department, Kachemak Emergency Services, Anchor Point Emergency Services and Ninilchik Emergency Services. We're lucky no one was injured save a firefighter with some symptoms of smoke inhalation.

Those firefighters kept the fire from burning three other boats in the shop — and from spreading to acres of other boats. The Northern Enterprises fire is a good reminder of the importance of essential government services — not just our volunteer fire departments, but basic infrastructure like roads, water and sewer. The irony is that if a planned water-sewer project for Kachemak Drive had gone in earlier, firefighters would have had easily accessible, high pressure water supplies and might have stopped the fire in its tracks.

As Public Works Director Carey Meyer noted, when home and business owners think about connecting to water and sewer lines, they imagine household water and the luxury of flush toilets — they don't think about fire hydrants. When that water line is finished in 2012, for 8,000 feet down Kachemak Drive from East End Road there will be a hydrant every 500 feet. That's three that will go in by Northern Enterprises.

The damage estimates aren't in, but probably close to a $1 million in boats and buildings was lost in the fire. That's not counting the lost work for boat builders or lost fishing time. When you think about the importance of our marine trades industry, the cost of extending water lines with hydrants seems cheap.

There's another essential government function unnoticed here: zoning and building codes. Zoning regulations cover things like building setbacks and industrial use. Building codes make sure structures have proper fire walls. As we're seeing in the tsunami disaster in Japan, it's not unreasonable to consider worst-case scenarios.

It's become fashionable to criticize government these days. The Northern Enterprises fire response shows how good government works. A well-trained, organized volunteer fire service led by a staff of paid civil servants did its job. As our marine industry flourishes, hidden infrastructure will provide the services that keep it running smoothly and safely. All the politicians who have toiled over plat maps and council packets should take pride in their efforts. The tedious work of democracy and the burden of taxes has paid off. A disaster that could have been worse ... wasn't.