String of arsons drives plans for new volunteer fire department in Alaska

A group of Two Rivers residents is working to establish a VFD that can quickly respond to incidents in the unincorporated community


Tess Williams
Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Amanda Smith cringed every time her phone rang last summer.

Smith, a 43-year-old Two Rivers resident, was afraid it was one of her neighbors calling about yet another fire in the community of about 650 residents east of Fairbanks.

Two Rivers was on edge as a young arsonist torched numerous buildings — some set ablaze with people still inside — over several months before authorities arrested him in August 2021.

The unincorporated community located along Chena Hot Springs Road is at least a 40-minute drive from the nearest emergency services. Residents could do little but watch as flames consumed beloved buildings.

But a new campaign rose out of the fear, frustration and helplessness of that time.

A core group of Two Rivers residents is working to start a volunteer fire department.

"It's about saving lives, protecting homes, protecting property and having the same service that everyone else in the borough has," Smith said.

The volunteer firefighters have already completed varying levels of medical training and are working with the Fairbanks North Star Borough on the steps needed to establish a department. Supporters formed a nonprofit called Two Rivers Fire Rescue, and Smith, the vice president of the board, said she hopes they will be ready to respond by next year.

Ten people have already completed at least one course of emergency medical technician training, she said.

Lingering trauma

Two Rivers has largely recovered from the string of arsons and cleared the charred remains of destroyed structures.

Alaska State Troopers last year identified Jamison Gallion, who was 17 at the time, as a suspect after a witness reported seeing him at the scene of the lodge fire, the affidavit said. Gallion was reportedly at the scene for several of the fires and had called 911 after setting one blaze.

Gallion told troopers he had started several of the fires by pouring gasoline on or around the buildings and then lighting it on fire, according to the affidavit.

He was arrested in August 2021 on 23 charges related to the spree of arsons. Gallion last month pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree arson — the most severe, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Law. He pleaded not guilty to the remaining counts.

But the trauma in the community lingers.

When the fires started in June 2021, it felt like everyone was at risk, said Luke Drewelow, a Two Rivers resident who will be a captain for the new fire department.

"For it to happen out in Two Rivers, Alaska, of all places that they have a serial arsonist — it took everybody by surprise," Drewelow said. "It's not like living in Anchorage or downtown, it's woodsy and we're out there. That somebody would have the audacity to go around lighting people's places on fire took everybody aback."

All told, at least 11 buildings burned, including several homes, Two Rivers Lodge, a historic grange hall and a thrift store. No one was injured by the fires.

The arsonist also left threatening notes for the community, according to a sworn affidavit written by Deputy Fire Marshal Kyle Carrington. That added to the feelings of tension before the arrest.

"It was hell," Smith said. "You were scared all the time because you didn't know who it was. And you never left the house. And if you did, you made sure you told someone that you trusted that you were leaving the house."

The homes have already been rebuilt, Smith said, but some of the community buildings, like the grange and store, are gone for good.

Only a few heaps of scorched debris are still visible on the outskirts of Two Rivers. Smith said she drives by the remains nearly every day when she commutes to her job as an office manager for a Fairbanks hunting guide. The damage is a painful reminder of how much loss the small community has endured in such a short period of time.

There have been more than 20 fires in town during the last several years, Smith said. And amid the arsons last summer, the town was also faced with an enormous wildfire encroaching on their properties. The Munson Creek Fire called for evacuations at and near Chena Hot Springs.

People in town are more guarded now, Smith said, and there's still a long way to go before things feel entirely safe again. A house fire last month triggered an all-too-familiar panic around the community as the news spread.

"It brought back a lot of stuff that we all thought we were OK with," she said. "But I don't think we are yet."

Next steps

Two Rivers still has a number of steps to take before it has an official fire department.

Under Alaska law, an organization first has to apply for registration with the State Fire Marshal's office. The Fairbanks North Star Borough would also have to pass an ordinance or resolution approving the organization's formation, said Jim Williams, chief of staff for the borough mayor.

Two Rivers this spring requested to become a department, Williams said.

"We're doing the research on, what is the fire department going to look like? And how is it going to function in the borough? Is it going to be helpful or not helpful?" he said. "We realize they want to make a fire department and they're anxious about getting that service, but Mayor (Bryce) Ward just wants to make sure we do it right and we're not creating any other problems someplace else."

The decision whether to form a fire district in Two Rivers could come a number of different ways, including by assembly vote or a vote from Two Rivers residents, Williams said. The borough would contract out the services rather than running them internally.

Williams said the borough is looking at estimates for how much it could cost to have another service area but declined to disclose the cost. Ward, the borough mayor, plans to meet with community members for a listening session at the end of June to talk about the options available for emergency services.

Adding a new fire district will raise property taxes for people within its boundaries, Smith acknowledged. But, she added, property taxes decreased earlier this year and adding a fire department should lower home insurance premiums because response time will be drastically reduced.

'We're going to get this done'

These days, Smith spends much of her free time learning to pull wounded people from fiery car wrecks, how to perform CPR or what methods are best to extinguish a fire.

The rest of the time is spent filling out paperwork and trying to navigate the process to make the department official. It's become a second job, she said, estimating she spends up to 30 hours a week trying to get the department off the ground.

The fledgling fire department has a wide array of experience: Several members have military backgrounds and others have been part of other fire departments. Drewelow, who will be captain of the medical side of the department, said he'd been certified for years to perform CPR and was knowledgeable about the equipment because he sold fire and emergency equipment as his job.

He and some of the others on the team have undergone training with the Nenana Volunteer Fire/EMS Department to complete medical training.

The department is also starting to gather equipment, mainly donations of used gear from surrounding fire departments.

As the volunteers have started training and hosting meetings with community members to provide updates on their progress, Drewelow said support has continued to grow.

"We have more people rooting for us than not," he said. "Once we started really hitting this home and doing what we're doing now, it kind of turned everybody in favor of us having something out here."

Smith said she would like to see a vote happen this fall in Two Rivers to decide if they should create a new fire district.

"Hopefully by next year we'll have a beautiful building somewhere out here," she said. "We've got a good team, we're motivated and we're going to get this done."

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(c)2022 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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