Story last updated at 2:10 p.m. Thursday, August 22, 2002

Running against the wind

Eastland Fire Department sparks funding controversy

by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Chris Bernard, Homer News
Eastland Volunteer Fire Department founder Lloyd Schade puts a flame-thrower to garge that he had doused earlier with a protective coating of Barricade gel in a demonstration of the product last week on his East End Road property. The water-based gel, which insulates the structure from the concentrated flame, can also be used to extinguish fire once it has ignited. The environmentally friendly gel can ge used with a garden hose attachment by homeowners.  
The 19-member Eastland Volunteer Fire Department is not your typical fire department. The crew doesn't drive shiny red trucks with flashing sirens, and there are no Dalmatians at the fire hall.

There isn't even a fire hall.

Instead, there's a mottled collection of battered equipment cobbled together with homesteaders' ingenuity and, it might seem, sheer willpower.

There are also the firefighters: Chief Dan Cole, who runs a fishing lure business; founder Lloyd Schade, a haymaker and longtime homesteader; and neighbor Jimmy Coultas, who fought fires years ago for the Navy, to name a few.

When Eastland was born about two years ago, its birth announcement ignited sparks throughout the Kenai Peninsula firefighting community. Schade registered the department with the state fire marshal's office to ensure legitimacy, which it received even though it's located smack in the middle of the newly created Kachemak Emergency Services Area.

A spokesperson at the fire marshal's office said departmental overlap is common, and that many departments have cooperative agreements with each other.

But that overlap might hurt Eastland's hopes for state funding. Currently, Schade is pushing for a piece of the pie in the form of U.S. Forest Service fire mitigation grants.

A $1 million grant to the Kenai Peninsula Borough was split among 11 area departments, including $300,000 for Kachemak Emergency Services. Eastland's share? Nada.

  Photo by Chris Bernard, Homer News
Lloyd Schade, left, and firefighter Jimmy Coultas survey the Eastland Volunteer Fire Departmentpis stable of trucks and trailers on Schadepis East End Road property last week.  
Schade has high hopes that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its Sept. 3 meeting will award Eastland part of an additional $300,000 up for grabs, though the department was not among the slated recipients.

Schade will be at the meeting hoping to make his case, but said he has no idea what his chances are. A call to the borough office showed he's not alone.

"Anything can happen," said Borough Grant Manager Bonnie Golden.

Essentially, Eastland is facing a turf war. But Cole and Schade don't necessarily see it that way.

"I've never said we're a stand-alone unit," Cole said. "We're a first-response team at this point. In many cases, we can knock it down, but if we can just slow it down some that's good, too."

"We don't care who fights the fires," agreed Schade. "Just so long as they get fought."

Eastland serves a 12-mile area from Greer Road to the terminus of East End Road. The wide expanses of meadow and beetle-killed spruce forests that dominate the area landscape create a tinderbox, Cole said. The make-or-break issue for East End fires is rapid response.

"The basis for (creating the department) was the fact that we live out here," Schade said at his home recently. "The (Homer Volunteer Fire Department) response time is so long because of the distance. It became obvious that we needed more abilities for rapid response."

Homer Fire Chief Bob Painter said the concern is legitimate, but he's not sure an "ill-equipped, ill-funded" volunteer department is the solution.

"It depends on how they're doing it," he said. "If they're putting themselves in harm's way, then it's not a valid role they're playing."

Besides, Painter said, Kachemak Emergency Services plans to build a fire department in the area.

"The Kachemak Emergency Services area has a good structure, but in reality they don't exist at this point except as a group that holds meetings and does planning," challenged Cole. "We still need to rely on the Homer Volunteer Fire Department. In a fire, the timely arrival of firefighters is critical. Otherwise, it gets to the point where you're saving foundations, and we're not known for our foundations out here."

But Painter argues that the Homer Volunteer Fire Department has members who live along East End Road who are better trained and better equipped to deal with fires.

"If they go into a smoky building and put themselves in danger, that puts our guys in danger if we have to go in after them," he said. "If they're doing strictly outdoor firefighting, that's a little different. If it's structural firefighting, they have the potential to do more harm than good."

One of Painter's fears is that the Eastland firefighters do not have radios to keep them in communication with other crews while fighting a fire, which could put them in danger, he said.

Schade said the expensive radios are a top priority pending future funding. Speaking to the training issue, Schade said the crew's experience varies -- some are even former HVFD members.

"Four of us went to the state-run forest fire school," he said. "If you pass the physical, you get your red card, and you can fight wildfires for the state or Outside."

Schade, weathered but healthy at age 70, added hastily that the red card is not required to fight wildland fires as members of an independent department.

While Schade admits that Eastland's gear is a little rough looking, he shows it off with pride.

"We've got these trailers that we can put on the back of a CAT or a skidder and get them anywhere into the woods," he said, pointing out several trailers with water tanks, pumps and a generator parked in a row on his sprawling property. Such is the Eastland Fire Department.

Purchasing some equipment from the Alaska Division of Forestry surplus warehouse, and jury-rigging some on their own, Eastland boasts 325-, 400- and 500-gallon tankers, a trailered generator, and a pickup truck with a 125-gallon tank.

There's also the pride of the department, a 5,000-gallon tank and pump built onto a semi-cab that Schade owned. He fills the tanks with a gravity-feed system he constructed on a spring that runs through his land, a do-it-yourself approach that is typical of the poorly funded department.

Schade said a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency fell through, and he claims Forestry owes Eastland money for assistance on a fire. But he also admits to owing Forestry money for surplus purchases.

"Basically, we're struggling for funds to pay off what we've already bought, and we need more," said Cole. "Members chipped in a small amount when we first set up, but Lloyd is shouldering the brunt of this himself."

Schade alluded to investing a "big chunk" of his own money into Eastland, but said, "You can't think of it that way. If we can save property and put out fires, it's worth any cost, isn't it?"

Low on funds, the department is high on volunteerism.

"That's how we keep our equipment running," Schade said. "We can make almost anything work. It may not look pretty, but it will work."

Eastland may be rag-tag, but it has an ace up its sleeve in a product called Barricade. A proprietary gel made by a Florida company, Barricade is a water-based foam that can be used to extinguish a fire.

Mixed with water, Barricade can be used to coat a building in a fire's path to prevent the structure from catching.

The technology is the same used for the absorbent quilting of diapers. Because of its water retention, the environmentally harmless mixture can also be sprayed on grass as a firebreak, Schade said.

He liked the product so much he became the Alaska distributor for it, and keeps a supply of it in the root cellar beneath his home.

"Without it, we would not be effective," he said. "Without this, we're just a mediocre fire department. With it, we're a damn good fire department."