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Julia O'Malley: Cuts to fire investigation go too deep at AFD

Julia O'Malley
A fire destroyed Sugar Shack espresso stand on Lake Otis near East 37th Avenue Wednesday morning, May 22, 2013. Owner Gary Loyd said he was notified at 4 a.m. of the damage. Loyd says it appears a window was kicked in and the business was ransacked before it burned. The structure is a total loss, he said. "We're devastated," Loyd said. "It feels like a bad dream right now." As Loyd cut plywood to board up the building, patrons frequently stopped to express their sympathy. Loyd says the business, which he opened in 1998, was insured and he hopes to have a another stand in place as soon as possible. Sugar Shack has a second location on 5th Avenue near Karluk Street.
Marc Lester
Brian Balega is the sole Fire Investigator at the Anchorage Fire Department.
Erik Hill
Fire Investigator Brian Balega shows Assistant District Attorney Katholyn Runnels the scene of a fatal fire at Glacier Terrace Mobile Home Park on Friday, January 3, 2014, in east Anchorage.
Erik Hill

Just about a year ago, somebody burned down the Sugar Shack Espresso stand on Lake Otis Parkway. They threw a rock through the window, stole a roll of quarters and some energy drinks and then torched the place. Most of this was caught on surveillance video. It was in the news. Soon after that, a screen shot of the guy in the video, released by the Anchorage Fire Department, went viral. Lots of people recognized him.

"To make a long story short, we had like 25 or 30 leads within a matter of days," said Gary Loyd, the Sugar Shack's owner.

Loyd turned this all over to the authorities. But nothing happened. It's been almost a year now. No charges have been filed, though the case finally made it to the district attorney. Rebuilding Loyd's shop took three months and about $40,000 and made his baristas scramble for fill-in work. Loyd heard the guy moved out of state.

"You would have thought this investigation would have been over a long time ago, and this little punk would have been indicted," he said.

But that's not how it works with arsons in Anchorage. Not anymore, anyway.

Every arson case is now handled by one person, Anchorage's lone fire inspector, Brian Balega. In fact, every time there is a significant fire, which occurs about 60 times a year, Balega is responsible for making sense of what happened. Smaller fires can be handled by fire captains but major ones -- big losses, apartment buildings, arsons, fires that cause injuries or fatalities -- all those need to be investigated by Balega. He can't keep up. This makes sense, because there was a time when four people did his job. When Balega started in 2008, two people were investigating fires. Now, budget cuts have winnowed things down to just one.

Balega has 28 open cases at the moment. If there were no more fires starting today, he estimates he could wrap up all those by fall. But, of course, there will always be more fires. It can take six months or more for him to wrap up one investigation given his current workload, he told me. Criminal cases get delayed for longer. Especially if they are complex.

"It's pretty frustrating," he said. "I want to do the best job I can for every victim I have, for every single fire. I take it personal when I can't."

If Balega goes on vacation or takes a day off, a fire inspector has to fill in. (The city's four inspectors, meanwhile, are responsible for 40,000 to 60,000 inspections a year, a workload they can't keep up with, either.) An audit of city staffing in November recommended that another investigator be hired to help Balega as soon as possible. But when I talked to Anchorage Fire Chief Chris Bushue recently, he said he has other more pressing positions to fill first, like that of Balega's boss, the city fire marshal and the deputy fire marshal. It is not a great climate to ask for increases in the fire budget, the chief said. Spending by the fire department is under intense pressure and scrutiny, he said. But, he'd really like to hire another investigator.

"Realistically, I'd like to have two but I've got to pick my battles," he said.

What the chief didn't say: Pressure on and scrutiny of the Fire Department budget comes from the mayor's office and from the contingent on the Assembly that usually votes in favor of the mayor's ideas. One of Dan Sullivan's major projects since he was elected has been to battle police and Fire Department unions and lay off public employees. Sure, cutting back spending to lower property taxes seems like a great idea but what happens when we cut so much that the government doesn't function? Can we agree that even a very limited government should keep people safe? Hard to argue against getting arsonists off the street in a timely fashion.

There are other reasons to investigate fires too. For one thing, state law requires it. Fire investigators might pinpoint a faulty kind of appliance or wiring that is causing fires. Fire investigation helps firefighters learn about how fires behave. And that saves lives and cuts down on injuries. Making firefighting safer saves the city money.

I wrote the mayor, through his spokeswoman Lindsey Whitt, about all this last week:

Me: "Is the city adequately staffed when it comes to fire investigation and fire inspection?"

Mayor, through Whitt: "Yes, at this time I feel that the MOA is adequately staffed when it comes to fire investigation and fire inspection."

Me: "Is there any concern on the part of the administration that cuts may have gone too deep in either of those areas?"

Mayor: "No."

Would he be saying the same thing if he were in Loyd's position, if the guy who torched his coffee cart a year ago was still running around on the street? I doubt it.

Loyd has nothing but praise for Balega, though he says the fire investigation process is broken.

"(Balega) is just like a duck floating on a pond, nice and calm, but underneath his feet are going a million miles an hour," Loyd said

"He needs some more help, period."

Loyd has been to Sullivan's office numerous times about his situation. He said he was told that City Hall doesn't make the decisions about how the Fire Department spends its money. That is true. But at the city, the buck stops with Sullivan.

I met Balega at the scene of a burned house in Eagle River a couple of weeks ago. (I should mention that getting permission from City Hall to talk with Balega took a month. It is easier to interview a senator or a general. I actually wrote a column about getting stonewalled. And then, like magic, I finally got permission.) Anyway, at the house in Eagle River, it was about nine degrees. Inside, most all the surfaces were covered with a layer of sooty ice. I followed Balega over the melted carpet, through a room filled with scorched furniture and blistered sheetrock. He pointed out a hole in the ceiling where a firefighter had fallen through the floor above. The firefighter had landed on a bunch of microphone stands and somehow managed not to get impaled.

We were there with a few other firefighters, including the inspector who sometimes fills in when Balega is gone. They'd just started looking around when noise came across the radio. Another fire in South Anchorage. The other firefighters loaded up and left. Balega stayed, sorting through the cold ashes with his camera, on his own again, like he is all the time.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591 or email her at jomalley@adn.com.


Julia O'Malley
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