Trouble with fungus
Fire Station 5 faces closure due to mold growth in the walls
Mold spores aside, plenty is up in the air regarding Fire Station 5—including the length of an apparently imminent closure.
City Manager Brian Nakamura said an inspector recently confirmed the presence of mold in the walls of Chico Fire Department’s station on Manzanita Avenue, near Upper Bidwell Park, but the city is unsure of when remedial efforts will begin or how long they will take once underway.
Upon further testing, it could be determined that the mold is isolated to a few problem areas; in that case, remediation would take 10 to 14 days and the fire station would resume serving the community as usual. But the possibility of a much bigger problem is real.
“Permanently closing Fire Station 5 may have to be considered,” Nakamura said. “We would hope that doesn’t happen, but there are no guarantees.”
Kim Parks, the city of Chico’s facilities manager, said there are three areas in the station where mold is visible, while from three to five other areas in the building will require “destructive testing,” a process in which small holes are made in the walls to look for internal mold. “We need proof that there aren’t any additional areas that are contaminated,” he said.
Due to safety concerns, Nakamura requested that the station be vacated during the remediation process, despite a test for airborne particulates in the building that found no cause for alarm. Parks explained that mold in the walls poses a risk to employees inside the building only once disturbed and made airborne. Therefore, any areas treated for mold have to be isolated with plastic barriers, the presence of which will prevent firefighters from operating in the station.
“Given that we don’t know what we’re getting into—whether it’s a major or minor problem—we hope that it’ll be [resolved] as quickly as possible and the station closure will be for a short period of time,” Nakamura said, reiterating that the timeframe will remain uncertain until contractors begin tearing into the walls.
Nakamura dismissed the notion that he is pushing to close the station as another cost-saving measure—as he has heard suggested—asserting that a closure would be purely a matter of “protecting the health of the employees and not exposing them to something potentially hazardous.”
Fire Station 5 receives about 2,000 calls a year and serves roughly 20,000 residents, Interim Fire Chief Keith Carter estimated. He said the building has had a history of water intrusion since it opened in 1999.
“The building has leaked from day one,” Parks agreed, adding that the roof has leaked in multiple places over the last 14 years.
Another major problem is a faulty gutter system behind the building’s brick veneer. “During construction, that gutter system got filled up with mortar,” Parks explained. Rather than draining from the brick, water “overflows the gutters and into the walls.”
Parks said that measuring exactly how much water gets trapped will determine whether doing mold remediation will make sense. In other words, if the mold in the station is a product of a plumbing leak, a permanent fix would be relatively easy, but if it is caused by a faulty gutter system, the mold will simply return after remediation.
In 2009, the city hired an independent contractor to estimate the cost of fixing the building’s construction deficiencies; the contractor identified more than 30 problems and provided an estimate of $650,000, Parks said.
Testing, remediation and plans to fix the building will be on hold while the city waits to hear if insurance will cover the cost, Nakamura said. He acknowledged that bearing the full cost of fixing the building would be a big blow to the city’s already strained budget and likely would result in “the temporary deletion of a service or program,” or necessitate borrowing from a reserve account.
Meanwhile, Carter has yet to receive word on how his department will be rearranged in the event of a closure of any length. “We would like to keep [firefighters] on-site, keep them in that response area so they can maintain coverage for that area of town,” he said. “If they’re not [at Station 5], it will mean a longer response time from one of our other stations.”
The department is already stretched thin, Carter said. Since July, city-mandated restrictions on overtime hours have necessitated periodic 24-hour closures of all five of the city’s stations, while Fire Station 3, which serves Chico Municipal Airport, no longer responds with a fire engine and is staffed by a lone firefighter.
“[The budget] definitely has put a strain on our ability to react to the community’s needs,” Carter said.