Deteriorating conditions in Modesto Fire Station 1 force firefighters to move out

See the deteriorating condition of Modesto’s Fire Station One

Modesto Fire Department
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Modesto Fire Department

At 80 years old , Modesto’s oldest and busiest fire station is showing its age.

The roof leaks. Parts of the floor are buckling. Pails sit filled with standing rainwater. Two rooms have been deemed off limits. Now, in the midst of a wet winter, firefighters are being moved out of the historic Modesto Fire Station 1 for their own safety. The department is facing the prospect of millions of dollars in repairs or building a new station.

The firefighters’ living quarters are being relocated this week because of leaks, water damage and other deteriorating conditions in the two-story downtown Modesto firehouse, which was built on 11th Street in 1939. Crews will now be next door in the small administrative office, which is being converted into dormitories and a day room.

“(Station 1) has got a lot of sentimental value to our organization, as well as our community. However, it’s outlived its usefulness,” said Fire Chief Alan Ernst. “We are in a situation now where we have to make sure the firefighters are working in good, safe conditions. So we are making some changes.”

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Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst points out some of the water damage that has forced them to vacate two offices at Modesto Fire Station 1 in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Andy Alfaro

The move has displaced the Modesto Fire Department administrative staff, Ernst included. His office now will be filled with beds and converted into a dorm for firefighters to sleep during their 48-hour shifts. The department is in the process of leasing a temporary space for administrative personnel.

At the old station, the kitchen and apparatus bay, where the fire engines and trucks are parked, will remain in use, with the fire crews going back and forth between the buildings.

Ernst said it’s undetermined how long the firefighters will remain in the makeshift dormitories, but they will not move back into the station as is. Instead, the department will need to make some big decisions about the fate of the ailing firehouse, which is also the city’s busiest, covering the downtown area and much of the densely populated La Loma, Graceada and College neighborhoods.

Still, the problems at Station 1 are not new. Some 20 years ago, steel plates were laid down on the apparatus bay floor because of seismic concerns, to prevent the fire engines from falling through into the basement. They remain in place today, with the station’s brush fire truck parked on top of them.

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Water damage has resulted from roof leaks at Modesto Fire Station 1 in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Andy Alfaro

Parts of the ceilings have collapsed, including a portion above the station’s new $1.1 million fire tiller ladder truck. Another hole has formed above beds in the upstairs dormitories. Ernst said about three years, ago the battalion chief’s former office and sleeping quarters were abandoned because of persistent leaks that opened a large hole in the ceiling. In another office, a trash can collects water from another are of caved-in ceiling. The conditions have raised concerns about mold and exposure to toxins, Ernst said.

The department has attempted multiple patches on the roof over the years, but the structure is in need of an entirely new one. Funds for a new roof were approved by the city and went out to bid, twice. But no companies bid on the $700,000 project either time.

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Water damage has resulted from roof leaks at Modesto Fire Station 1 in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Andy Alfaro

“It’s not normal to go out and have no bids twice,” city spokesman Thomas Reeves said. But he suspects the amount of work that would need to be done, and the possibility for additional work, gave some contractors pause.

The art deco building is made of poured concrete, which has become porous and is crumbling in other areas. Still, Ernst said the firehouse is “beloved” in the department because of its distinctive look and history, which includes having the city’s only working fire pole. The two tall hose-drying towers behind the station have long been out of use; one of them serves as a home for the station’s barbecue smoker instead.

The department and city are weighing three main options with how to proceed with Station 1, Ernst said. The first is to just rehab and repair what is currently broken, and then move back in. Early initial estimates put the cost of that work at $5 million to $10 million, he said.

The second is to do a complete renovation from top to bottom, which would be to bring the whole building up to code — including a seismic retrofitting — at an estimated $10 million to $12 million. And the third is to build an entirely new station, either at the current site or another downtown location, at a cost of an estimated $12 million to $15 million.

The last time a fire station was constructed in Modesto was 2008, when Fire Station 2 opened, replacing the old station. Ernst said the average life of the Modesto firehouses is 40 years. Station 1 is double that.

The next step is to form a committee to to study the station and research options for a long-term fix. Once that is completed, a recommendation will be brought to the City Council.

In the meantime, a portable trailer with additional bathrooms and showers has been installed behind the administration building. Twenty-four firefighters work out of Station 1, in three shifts throughout the week. Ernst said he any fixes to the building would take anywhere from a year to two years to complete, if not longer.

“This is something both the city and Fire Department are very committed to addressing and coming to a resolution on,” Ernst said.

Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs midweek and Sundays. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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