After almost 15 years of planning and development, the West Lakes area has a brand new fire station.

Along with that comes a new fleet maintenance facility for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Station 7-3, the public safety building along the Parks Highway north of Wasilla, opened a few weeks ago. Think of the $10 million station as a duplex with the fire department on one side and fleet maintenance leasing the other side.

Deputy Director of Emergency Services, Ken Barkley, said the new, four-bay garage for fleet maintenance was long overdue.

The borough has up to 400 vehicles and large pieces of equipment. Mechanics used to work in an old fire station where they couldn’t lift vehicles higher than three feet. The small work area only accommodated up to three trucks at one time, too.

Barkley said that meant many jobs had to be outsourced.

“Transmissions was a big one, we couldn’t pull transmissions. Anything under the vehicle-- drivelines, axles-- we couldn’t lift them to do the proper work,” Barkley explained.

There are special features that make this facility more user-friendly. Shop supervisor Howard Smith wanted a lube that centralized all the fluids for efficiency.

“Air, water, oil and antifreeze evacuation so we don’t have to spend time running back and forth trying to dump out pans,” Smith said.

He also implemented a new, 100-point checklist for every vehicle that comes in. Smith said they used to send out vehicles for work, but those crews only fixed specific problems.

“It wasn’t the same as going in on one of our own vehicles and doing a full inspection on one before it leaves here and be more proactive versus reactive like we were before,” Smith said.

The larger workspace means mechanics have room to store trucks that are waiting for parts while still having a place for urgent repairs.

Barkley said that allows them to get rigs back on the road sooner, which benefits smaller departments.

“Trapper Creek, Talkeetna, Butte, Sutton. They don’t have a lot of backup vehicles, so when one of their engines or frontline tenders goes down, it’s important we can get it back on the road,” Barkley said.

The West Lakes Fire Department encompasses the other side of the building. Fire Chief John Fairchild said the larger station is more centralized and will improve response times.

“It allows us to do so much more with our equipment and we can move it around as needed. Different times of the year, Big Lake gets busy, we can move equipment around and have it really to go. It gives us a lot more options,” Fairchild said.

He said they saw the need for a fire station in that area more than a decade ago as more people moved to the Valley. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the Mat-Su Borough’s population grew by 17-percent from 2010 to 2016 with an additional 15,000 residents.

“Between buying property, getting the legislative grants to do it, saving our money within the fire service area, it’s been a long process with many generations of people,” Fairchild said.

There’s enough room to house their water rescue equipment that used to sit outside collecting snow during the winter.

The station also has 10 bedrooms that can be used for first responders covering a major event, like a wildfire, or people in town for training. Fairchild said those rooms will be used as full-time firefighter housing as the station grows.

“We’re planning for the future with this station, so we will have 24/7 coverage with people in-house,” Fairchild said.

Right now his department has four full-time firefighter and 55 volunteers.

Together the fire station and fleet maintenance crews hope to meet the changing needs of the Mat-Su Valley as the community continues to grow.

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