Few things from Chugiak’s frontier days continue to exist today. One whose vision remains unchanged is the volunteer fire company. Although its “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” mission remains, their equipment and methods have improved vastly.
During the 1940s, a forest fire ravaged the mostly-unpopulated Birchwood area. When post-World War II settlers began moving north on the Palmer Highway, fear of another conflagration caused concern. In 1950 a brush fire spread on the Eagle River homestead of Ray and Lucy Tedrow, located alongside what now is Monte Road. The closest telephone was at Ft. Richardson, several miles to the south. Fifteen-year-old Monte Tedrow and young neighbor Glenn Briggs hopped into a pickup truck and rushed to seek help fighting the fire. Before they could get there, the vehicle overturned, fatally injuring the Tedrows’ only child.
Homes of that era were of frame construction, heated by stoves fueled either by wood or oil. Before electricity was extended in 1950, gasoline lanterns and candles provided illumination. It was a recipe that led to many blazes in structures scattered throughout the large area.
Fires were a constant threat and in 1952 residents gathered to form the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company. Initial members were James McDowell, Eugene Carr, Furmen Gunnets, Charles Nestle, George Sehm, Robert Schroeder, C. E. LeDoux Jr., and Robert Aubrey. Their first equipment was an Army surplus Jeep whose transmission was faulty and a surplus 1250-gallon fuel tanker with no brakes.
There were no fire hydrants. Private water wells, many of which were hand-dug, had limited volume. Water to fill the tanker was pumped from Peters and Meadow creeks, Beach, Mirror or Fire lakes or the Eagle River.
In her “Between Two Rivers” history of Chugiak-Eagle River, Marjorie Cochrane illustrated the difficulties:
“Even the volunteers, their equipment, and the new telephone lines that finally connected the community with Anchorage and Palmer could not eliminate all the hazards of fire. Volunteer fireman Dallon Oberg remembered that he was the first person to respond to a call not long after the fire company was established. He got the fire out, but later it rekindled and the building was lost when the company’s rudimentary fire equipment failed. Disgusted, Dallon went to Ray Hendrickson’s hardware store and bought a big galvanized bucket. He gave it to the volunteer fire chief as “a firefighting tool that can’t break down.”
Keeping up with their responsibilities was a never-ending challenge for the firefighters, although there seldom was a shortage of people willing to respond. Money was needed for fuel, turnout gear, hoses, utilities—even more buckets. The volunteers of necessity became a social as well as an emergency response agency. Regular Bingo and dime-a-dish dinners were held, along with dances, box socials and raffles held in the continuing struggle for funds. One popular fund-raiser was a cookbook featuring recipes provided by firefighters, proceeds from their purchase going to the department.
A permanent funding solution came in 1964 with creation of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough under the Mandatory Borough Act.
Several service areas were created to provide various public services, including fire protection. Chugiak voters approved a fire service area whose borders extended from Powder Magazine Road (now the North Eagle River Interchange) to the Knik River boundary with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. An annual mill rate of one-half mill was set and a three-member board of supervisors was elected. With the cost of a fire engine over the past decade doubling, the rate was recently increased for the first time in nearly half a century to one mill, or $100 on $100,000 worth of property.
Although now supported by tax funds, the department still accepts donations. Operations Chief Virginia McMichaels said money received as donations helps cover the cost of bike helmets given to children who lack them, CPR classes for the community provided by volunteers and free smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors for needy families.
Their non-fire-suppression community involvement maintains some of the spirit of olden times. From its early days, the fire department sponsored and took part in the Chugiak 4th of July parade, its members saying that if they had to stay around on call they might as well join in the celebration. On June 8, they will participate in the home opener of the Chinooks baseball team at Loretta French Park.
Emergency calls to the fire department are dispatched through the Anchorage 911 center. That was not always the case.
In the beginning, Army surplus field telephones connected many of the houses. Moose frequently disrupted service when they broke lines strung through the woods. When regular telephone service became available in 1957, the emergency number was HO-5555, but most people knew it was faster to just click the receiver switch to gain access to the exchange and dial 5 four times.
While today a special tone is broadcast to alert responders, back then letting the 30 Chugiak volunteers know the location of the emergency was a problem. Pagers and cell phones were far in the future. MTA lineman Ben Wattum came up with an answer even though engineers said it was impossible. He arranged it so that the phones in all 30 homes rang when the emergency number was dialed and as many volunteers as were available listened in.
Another early problem was that most firefighters were usually at work during the daytime. In case of a fire, firefighters’ spouses dropped what they were doing and rushed to the station to pick up the truck and head to the fire. In cases where too few firefighters were available, the sirens and horns were given extra urgency to their blasts and civilians gave chase to lend a hand.
In days of yore, the department was housed in Latimer Station 31 on Palmer Highway overlooking Knik Arm with a superb view of the “Three Sisters”—Mounts Foraker, Hunter and Denali.
The Chugiak department now has four other stations, Gilmore Station 32 in South Birchwood, Hill Station 33 in Peters Creek, Wallace Station 34 at the Birchwood Airport, and Lowe Station 35 at Fire Lake. The stations are named for volunteers who played important roles in the department. Max Latimer was an original fire chief. Linda Hill lost her life in a Glenn Highway traffic accident as she was on her way to an emergency medicine training class. Brothers Til and Art Wallace were active with the department; Art’s Fuji Gifts was located across from the fire station and he was usually first to respond. Otto W. “Bill” Lowe was a member of the board of supervisors for more than 20 years. Cliff Gilmore was a long-time volunteer who helped keep the equipment in good shape and also is a former chief.
Latimer Hall currently is staffed around-the-clock with advanced life support personnel and equipment. Station 35 at Fire Lake is the newest and covers the southerly portion of the service area.
The fleet of response vehicles has evolved over the years from poorly functioning hand-me-downs to the most modern equipment available. There are 24 in active service plus two support vehicles. A new rescue rig is due later this year.
The Eagle River neighborhood grew at a more rapid pace than those to the north. Late in the 1950s a separate volunteer fire department was established there. A fire engine acquired from the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department in Anchorage was stored in the Pippel’s potato barn located where the Carrs store now sits. Later, the fire station was moved to a frame building on Coronado Road to house a pumper, a tanker and an ambulance. In 1974-75 the volunteer fire department was absorbed by the
Greater Anchorage Area Borough and later that year became part of the Municipality of Anchorage Fire Department as Station 11. Paid firefighters and paramedics staff the station on Eagle River Road around the clock.
Dissolving the Chugiak volunteer operation in favor of professional firefighters has been discussed over the years. Residents, though, have always favored retaining the volunteer status.
The crews are well-trained and the tax rate is lower because members are volunteers. Currently, about 112 firefighters make up four separate crews that rotate duty schedules. Training sessions are held weekly.
Clifton Dalton is chief, McMichael is operations chief and Chris Wilkins heads the support element. Captains are Zac Sullivan, Andrew Sather, Brian Gates and Wes Raley while Zack Overmyer, Tim Blum, James Edge, Nick Bizjak, Brian Dunlevy and Chris Steeves hold the rank of lieutenant. Members of the Board of Supervisors are Ronni Sullivan, Bill Stoltze and Craig Lance.
Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department has a mutual-aid agreement with surrounding agencies. If a major fire breaks out in Chugiak, Anchorage sends equipment to help. In turn, Chugiak volunteers back up the Eagle River station when Muldoon firefighters are busy. When called upon, they also respond to emergencies outside the service area, including in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
In Chugiak, neighbors continue to help each other, expecting nothing in return. Next time you spot someone wearing their distinctive patch, put a smile on your face and tell them, “Thanks.”
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.