Cordova Chronicles: Old CVFD truck gets new life

Driving past the clear-cut area near the Mudhole Smith Airport a couple weeks ago, something lime green amidst all the fallen trees above the highway caught my eye.  Slowing down, I realized it was one of the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department’s big trucks.  Say what? No smoke or flames were in sight, nor personnel from our great crew of firefighters scurrying about.

I pulled over, and stepped out to the sound of a chain saw, plus intermittent mellow country music.  This one-time fire truck was now a firewood truck.

I wandered over, and introduced myself to Todd Blaisdell, the proud owner of one of the most unique wood-packing vehicles in town.  A lot of locals burn a lot of wood, so that is saying a lot.

Blaisdell brought the truck from Rosemary McGuire, who was the high bidder on the 1976 FWD that was recently auctioned off by the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department.

He was quite proud of the rig he obtained for the original bid of $1,000.

“It only has 6,788 miles on it, and I cut out the water tank and a few other things so it can haul at least a cord of wood per trip,” he said.

That’s good news, as the diesel powered truck averages 3 miles per gallon going to and from his place at Hippy Cove, roughly a 14-mile trip each way.

“It’s all wheel drive and gets around good”, added Blaisdell.  “But I almost got stuck trying to get at some big trees on the other side of the clear cut near that old World War Two plane wreck.”

Every fire truck has tales to tell, and the lime green model that arrived in Cordova in the fall of 1976 had to have the battle scars to show it.  So I decided to call retired Fire Chief Dewey Whetsell, who documented 34 years of fire-fighting adventures in his 2007 book, “Fire and Ice.”   Dewey and his wife, Louise, now live in Eagle River, and coincidentally are soon heading to Hawaii to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Dewey had several fascinating tidbits.  Most of the fire trucks in the United States are manufactured in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Getting them to Cordova is no simple task.  This one was driven by Cordova fireman Dick Groff and longtime Fire Chief Jack Dinneen almost 2,000 miles from the factory to Tacoma, and then shipped north.  Their trip was during the early fall, and Groff remembered running into snow and ice going through Donner Pass, of all places.

During the truck’s prime years as one of the department’s most important rigs, Whetsell felt it’s role in fighting the New England Cannery fire in it’s first year of service was probably the most memorable. That blaze took over 36 hours to contain.

As far as nicks and bruises, Whetsell said fire trucks are built to take them.

The one he remembered most for this particular rig involved a fire in a two-story residence that belonged to the Bill and Ruth Fairall, located directly behind the high school.  It was so icy the truck slid against a nearby telephone pole, blocking access to much of the equipment on one side of the vehicle.

Whetsell also mentioned the reason for its lime green color, as opposed to the more traditional red.  “Insurance companies gave a 5 percent discount because it was more visible.  At that time the truck cost roughly $100,000, so that was a significant savings.  Today it would cost around $300,000.”

Whetsell recalled Perry Lovett was city manager at that time, and the city paid for the truck.  State and federal funding and grants helped cover the costs of future trucks and emergency equipment.

The siren no longer works, but gold lettering on the front side doors still says “Cordova Fire Dept.,” with a big gold “4” underneath.   In its gradual evolution from Engine #1 to Engine #4 over a period of 40 years, this truck and it’s crew of volunteers have served Cordova well.

In tribute, Blaisdall still flies the American and Alaska State flags as it chugs down the road, hauling wood for a fire, instead of racing to put one out.  And likely more than a few active and retired local firefighters remember at one time hanging on for dear life whenever they see it going by.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016.