Nobody ever joined the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department to get rich.
“The department didn’t offer you nothing but the camaraderie of the membership,” recalled Greg Weaver, one of four former CVFD chiefs who gathered to swap stories from a bygone era of frontier firefighting last week in honor of the department’s 60th anniversary.
Joining Weaver for the informal pow-wow of former chiefs were Bill Gaston, John Steeby and Cliff Gilmore. Over cold cuts and soft drinks in Gilmore’s Birchwood garage, the quartet — who all joined the department shortly after arriving in Chugiak in the late 1960s or early ‘70s — shared their reasons for choosing to risk their lives for the sake of their growing community.
“It was like a family,” said Gaston, who now lives in Wasilla. “Everybody in there was a family.”
Despite having to drive their own vehicles to emergencies wearing nothing but the clothes on their backs, Gaston said being part of the department in the 1970s and ‘80s was worth every minute.
“Looking back on it, for sure,” he said.
Steeby said he was working nights when he first heard the department’s siren go off one day in Chugiak. He followed the old 1947 tanker to the scene and joined on almost immediately.
“It was a big problem finding crews during the day,” he said.
In those days, that’s about all it took to become a member of the department. There was no formal training and almost no equipment. Calls were dispatched via a party-line telephone system that rang in 30 homes at once, and Steeby said members would hop in their own cars and head out to the fire wearing whatever seemed appropriate.
“Just our regular clothes — snow suits or boots,” he said.
Getting to fires, Gilmore said, was often a major challenge. There was little or no street maintenance, he said, making wintertime runs an adventure.
“And there weren’t a lot of street names, either,” he recalled.
Though their methods and equipment were crude, the four men said there was a certain freedom that came with being able to fly by the seat of their pants.
“We wouldn’t fit in now,” Gaston said. “We couldn’t go by there laws and regulations. If somebody had a good idea how to do it, that’s the way we did it. If nobody had an idea, we did it anyway.”
That often meant using whatever tools were handy to make rescues at auto accident scenes.
“We didn’t have the Jaws of Life,” Gilmore said. “We used crow bars and axes.”
Being first on the scene in those days often meant having to deal with dangerous or combative people. The men said they would often work in tandem with the State Troopers — themselves an undermanned unit — on dangerous calls. Steeby said he went on one call where dispatchers assured him a trooper was already on scene.
“When I got to the road, he was there waiting for me,” he said.
Whether it was fighting fires or helping out with auto accidents, the four former chiefs all agreed that being part of the lifesaving department stands out as among their proudest accomplishments.
“We definitely helped a pile of people,” Weaver said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information which misstated the number of years the CVFD has been in operation.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or [email protected]