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Arlee celebrates completion of new fire hall

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ARLEE — Despite the chilly, drizzly fog that settled over Arlee Saturday, a festive air surrounded the new fire hall as the community gathered to celebrate the completion of the facility. 

The building represents countless hours of planning and hard work that started back in 2001, when the fire board learned that the expansion of U.S. Highway 93 would cut off access to the existing facility that had housed the department for more than 50 years.

“Now here it is, January of 2010, and we’re able to move in to our new fire hall,” fire board president Susan Black said at Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We have a fire station that meets the needs of our hardworking, well-trained emergency (personnel).

“We have so many people to thank.”

Beginning in 2001, the board met with the Montana Department of Transportation, the Tribes and the county commissioners to discuss the options for moving the fire hall. Money was a problem, though. 

The all-volunteer fire department had no way to pay for a new building or even a building spot. But in 2005, the board learned that MDT would provide a “functional replacement” for the old building. Then came the task of finding land on which to build, and that wasn’t easy, either. Nothing suitable was up for sale, and certainly not at a price the department could afford.

But board member Steve Matt, who’s also a tribal member, got the ball rolling with CSKT, and in 2006, the Tribes agreed to lease the fire department an acre of land at an unbeatable price — $1 per year for 25 years, with an option to renew for the following 25 years. 

“So that’s reasonable, very reasonable,” Black joked.

The $785,000 construction cost was paid for completely by MDT, so no local taxes were affected by the project, Black noted. And the money actually covered more amenities to the building than architect Jay Kirby had originally thought possible.

“We were able to add the two bays on the back of the building, and that’s what we really needed,” Kirby said.

Tribal Council member James Steele thanked the volunteers for their hard work, and said the Arlee firefighters have always responded quickly when his family has needed emergency services.

“I remember the fire department coming and helping us in a difficult time,” Steele said. “Personally, I’m proud for our community and Arlee … we don’t know how to act with a new fire hall and new sidewalks and all these things.”

“This is a great addition … from the Tribes’ side, it’s a great effort,” Tribal Council member Jim Malatare added.

Fire Chief Ken Light said he and his crew spent all day Monday moving equipment over to the new building, but they’re still waiting on some minor projects like phone connections to be completed.

“Other than that, we’re responding out of the new fire hall,” he said.

He and the rest of the fire department are “stoked” to be working out of a facility with four times the space of the old building and plenty of amenities like in-floor heating and a state-of-the-art ventilation system with carbon monoxide detectors. And now there’s actually room to park all of the department’s emergency vehicles at the fire hall — before, Light or another volunteer was always taking home a quick response truck to park in his yard. At the old fire hall, the only office space was the room that was formerly the town jail, and tight quarters made working on vehicles inside the building difficult. Now the department has training and office spaces galore.

“Just having our office space and all of that is really, really nice,” Light said. “We’re just really, really excited about it.”

He hopes that excitement spreads to the community now that the fire department has an impressive presence in its new, better location. 

“Here’s this beautiful building sitting there … I think it’s going to bring some more help with what we do,” Light said.

Right now the department is looking for funding for office furnishings — the desks at the old fire hall were 30 years old — kitchen supplies and other equipment, and of course, volunteers. It’s especially hard to find committed volunteers when the poor economy requires many people to work more than one job to make ends meet, Light explained.

“We’re always looking for more volunteers,” he said.

The volunteers are, after all, the heart and soul of the Arlee Fire Department, as Kirby told the group assembled in front of the fire hall Saturday.

“This building is great, but it’s all of you people that are making it work," he said.

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