La Pointe firefighters scramble before ice road closes
In the days since the March 6 fire that destroyed the only firehall on Madeline Island, the La Pointe Fire Department has scrambled to re-equip itself, making use of a temporary ice road that links the town to Bayfield.
But the road soon could be forced to close, said Nate Nelson, the La Pointe Fire Department's ice rescue operator.
"Today, it's still open. But the rain definitely isn't helping the situation," he said Thursday afternoon.
Nelson said it's difficult to predict how long the ice road will remain viable, "because once it starts to go, it goes quick."
"It could be as short as a matter of days or it could last another week or two," he said.
Knowing the ice road's days were numbered, the La Pointe Fire Department wasted little time procuring the vehicles it needed to at least partially replace the fleet of rigs and trucks lost to the fire last week.
"It's been unbelievable the support we've gotten and the donations we've received," Nelson said.
To date, the La Pointe Fire Department has received three smaller fire engines, as well as a 1,900-gallon tanker, from other area fire departments, Nelson said.
"So we, as a fire department, are operational, as far as an initial attack would go on something like a wildfire when it gets to that season. But our bigger apparatuses and the rest of our trucks, they won't be able to come over until the boats start running again, and that's probably about three weeks out yet," he said.
Nelson said ambulance service is back up to nearly full strength on the island, thanks to help La Pointe received from its neighbors.
"We went from having absolutely nothing to having a semi-operational crew," he said. "I think we have just over 18 full sets of turnout gear, head to toe, with our airpacks, so we can go into a scene, as well as all the hoses we could ever use and a few pumps and handtools and a few rigs to do some smaller stuff, as far as fighting fires. So, we're nowhere near where we want to be, but we've had to actually put some donations on hold, the response has been so good."
The Duluth Fire Department is among the agencies that have lent a hand.
Duluth Fire Chief Dennis Edwards said the department has lent La Pointe firefighters eight self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units. It also worked in collaboration with the Cloquet Fire Department and Clarey's Safety Equipment to also provide 16 air cylinders Cloquet had been about to trade out for new ones.
"We reached out to some of our partners to see how we could help La Pointe, and we're waiting to hear what more they need, and then we'll once again reach out to all of our mutual aid partners to see who's got an extra ladder they could use or whatever they need," Edwards said.
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College also has responded by lending La Pointe 10 more SCBA air packs, a cascade air fill system, a generator, a gas-powered fan and an array of hand tools, including axes, flashlights and forcible entry tools.
Edwards said the Duluth Fire Department really isn't out anything financially for the assistance it's providing La Pointe.
The SCBAs now on loan to La Pointe were acquired by the Duluth Fire Department at nominal expense through the Federal Excess Procurement Program. He said that for equipment obtained through that program, "We generally pay nothing or just the cost of shipping."
Edwards said the air packs weren't being used at the time and were basically being held as backup equipment.
"I would hope that every community that would have the opportunity would step up to help them, just like communities would step up to help Duluth if we were going through the same thing."
Nelson said it's in the Northland firefighting community's nature to come together in times of need.
"It's one big team when push comes to shove. Everybody's looking out for everybody else," he said.
The next few weeks could be somewhat tense for Madeline Island and its population of about 270 year-round residents, with the fire department not up to full power. Once the ice road goes out, the island will no longer be able to receive mutual aid from larger fire departments on the mainland.
During the transition period between when the ice road closes and the ferry service begins, Madeline Island will need to rely on wind sled transportation, hampering its ability to move heavy gear, such as vehicles across the water.
Nelson remains optimistic nevertheless, saying: "As soon as the ferry starts running, it won't take long until we're almost 100 percent. But until we get to that point, we're going to be hurting a little bit, as far as what we can do."
Edwards said La Pointe firefighters can count on continued support.
"We will look for a way to help anyone in need, just like they would help us. If this happened in Duluth, I'd have 2,500 fire departments trying to contact me to see what I needed help with. That's the way the fire service is, and that's the way it should be," he said. "We're in the business of helping people on their worst day, and La Pointe is having their worst day."