Sitka’s Smokey Blue Gets Call to Pribilofs

Amanda Baggen and Wayne Olson wrap up "Smokey Blue" Wednesday. (Sentinel Photo)

    Sitka’s trusty blue fire truck “Smokey Blue” made its last trip from the fire hall Wednesday, headed for the Samson Tug and Barge landing.
    But it was not the end of the road for Engine No. 7. The 23-year-old truck will find a new home more than 1,000 miles away, as the main – and only – fire engine in the Pribilof Islands town of St. George.
    Built by L.N. Curtis Co. of Seattle, Smokey Blue was the only blue truck in Sitka’s fleet of emergency vehicles, and is one of very few fire engines of that color in the U.S.
    The non-traditional color was selected by Gerry Helland, who was fire chief when the truck was ordered two decades ago. It was retired late last year with the fire department’s acquisition of a new ladder truck. The city then offered  the old truck to another fire department that could use and take care of  it, and it has taken nearly a year to iron out the transportation logistics of getting the machine to its new home.
    Sitka Fire Chief Dave Miller said Sgt. Michael Lejarzar, the Village Public Safety Officer and fire chief in St. George, was the driving force behind Smokey Blue’s move to the middle of the Bering Sea.
    “He would come down and work on VPSO training,” Miller said. “He absolutely loved that engine. He said, ‘When you get rid of it, we want it.’”
    The city sold the truck to the City of St. George for $1.
     “They’re really not worth that much when you figure out the service aspect of it,” Miller said, of the nominal price. “There’s not a lot of money in old fire trucks.” St. George will pay for the shipping cost.
    Miller hastened to add that the truck is in good shape, and despite some rust damage in places, it’s still a good-looking rig. When it arrived in 1989 the fire hall became a site of special interest to visitors because blue fire engines were so rare at the time.
    “A lot of people came to Sitka, ‘I heard about this truck. I have to take a picture of it.’”
    Miller’s history with the fire hall runs parallel to the blue truck’s. As president of the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department Association, he remembers testifying with Helland at an Assembly meeting in the late 1980s about the need to replace at least one of the department’s older fire engines. While not an overly sentimental guy, Miller said he does have a soft spot for Smokey Blue.
    “It’s a cool truck,” he said. “This was the first new truck the city purchased in a long time. The fleet was aging, and it was tough to get a response out of some of them.”
    St. George has been without a fire truck for the past five years, so Smokey Blue will be a welcome sight when it arrives, said Jennifer Merculief, a receptionist at the St. George city office. The Village Public Safety Officer will be in charge of taking care of the new equipment.
    “They do have a garage, and it will be used as a fire truck,” Miller added. Those terms were in the conditions placed on whoever the new owner would be.
    Merculief said the last major fire in St. George was last winter, when the 50-year-old carpenters shop owned by the urban Native corporation Tenaq Inc., burned down. Her father and others in the community of 50 to 60 residents used nearby hydrants and whatever was available to fight the fire.
    “If we’d had (a fire truck) they probably would’ve saved the building,” Merculief said.
    As to the color of the truck, Merculief laughed and said she was pleased with that, too. “That’s awesome. My favorite color.”
    Samson Tug and Barge will ship the truck to Dutch Harbor – a 10-day trip across the Gulf of Alaska – where it will be picked up for the final 200-mile leg of the trip to St. George.

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