Annual picnic a ‘thank you’ to volunteer fire department

Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 14:13
  • Verity Mitchell plays inside a fire engine at a picnic at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. The annual event, hosted by the congregation, honors first responders with the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Zak Overmyer of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department shows firefighting equipment to kids at a volunteer appreciation picnic hosted by the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. The annual picnic is an opportunity for community members to say thank you to local firefighters, according to volunteers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • John Mitchell holds his grandson watch a passing ambulance at a volunteer appreciation picnic hosted for the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department by the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Chugiak-Eagle River residents share a barbecue lunch at a picnic hosted by the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. The annual event honors the members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A cake honoring the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department served at a picnic at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. The annual event, organized by the congregation, honors volunteer first responders. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Eagle River resident Tucker Nakken grills Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department member Zak Overmyer about the inner workings of a fire engine at a volunteer appreciation picnic at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak on June 25, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

When the first firefighters and paramedics pulled up to the United Methodist Church of Chugiak Sunday afternoon, the only fire was under the grill set up outside.

Smiling congregation members, the smell of fresh barbecue and a sweeping view of Mount Susitna greeted the engine and ambulance as they rolled into the church parking lot. Red-checkered tablecloths covered the tables arranged at the sunny north end of the lot; inside the church, congregation members had prepared a potluck picnic buffet.

The annual Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Volunteer Appreciation Picnic is important to church members and CVFRD volunteers alike.

“We’re very excited to have support from the community,” said CVFRD Lt. James Hales, who arrived with an eight-man crew from Station 31. “It’s nice to get to meet people who are not having an emergency — that’s probably one of the biggest things for us.”

In the parking lot, CVFRD volunteers distributed stickers and plastic firemen’s hats to smiling kids. They showed the gleaming red fire engine to a tiny, enraptured audience, opening doors and hatches to reveal the mysterious equipment inside.

The local fire department and the Chugiak church have a long history. Bill Lowe, a former longtime member of the CVFRD Board of Supervisors (and Station 35 namesake), was also part of the congregation at the United Methodist Church of Chugiak, according to church member John Mitchell.

Lowe was killed in a crash on the Old Glenn Highway. Years later, the church hosted the first annual CVFRD picnic, Mitchell said.

“Typically, it’s hard to put on a picnic in the summer because everyone’s off in distant lands,” he said. “However, we thought, let’s try it – and it caught on.”

The event is organized each year by the church and funded by the church missions committee, which buys the barbecue and other entrees, Mitchell said. A decorated cake came from the local Fred Meyer bakery, and congregation members came through with the rest. It takes about half a dozen volunteers to organize it all, Mitchell said.

“Everybody contributes their strengths,” said Ken Newkirk, who cooked barbecue for Sunday’s picnic. “Everybody, they do what they can, and this is what I can do to help.”

A church member and chef at the Alaska Native Medical Center, Newkirk said he spent the weekend slow-roasting brisket and pork, then making enough macaroni and cheese to feed a couple dozen people. It’s not too much work, he said – it’s all about showing support for the local volunteer first responders.

“We think it’s important to let them know how much we appreciate them,” said his wife, Donna Newkirk, who also helped organize the Sunday potluck.

Run by three paid staff and approximately 100 volunteers, the CVFRD covers the 50 square miles between the North Eagle River Overpass and the Knik River Bridge. Volunteer crews handle nearly 900 calls a year, clocking more than 56,300 volunteer hours in 2016, according to department officials.

Volunteers staff approximately 90 percent of Alaska’s fire departments, according to the National Fire Department Registry, but the CVFRD is the only one of its kind in the Anchorage/Mat-Su region.

For many Chugiak residents, that means a lot — yet many don’t even realize the first responders are unpaid, churchgoers said.

“They’re big in our community,” Mitchell said. “They’re our neighbors and our friends, and they’re one of the most unknown elements in our community.”

Sunday was the community’s chance to recognize its department and say “thank you,” he said.

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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