On Monday night, the community of Nikiski came together at Fire Station #2 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nikiski Fire Department.
Within the first two hours of the event close to a hundred people had stopped by, and visitors were invited to tour the station, play games with fire hoses, view a slideshow of historic photos and hear stories from some of the personnel who have come and gone over the years. For some, it was an opportunity to look back in time and see how the department has grown throughout its history. For the current and former firefighters who attended, it was a family reunion, as former chiefs got to know the newest volunteers and old crew members reminisced over hotdogs and hamburgers about long nights at the station.
Since 1969, Nikiski firefighters have responded to emergencies of all kinds, from cannery fires to search-and-rescue diving operations. With a service area of around 6,000 square miles, the department is responsible for protecting the oil platforms out on the Cook Inlet and the remote communities of Tyonek and Beluga across the water. These days, the department boasts state-of-the-art engines, tankers and ambulances, but it wasn’t always that way. When the department first started, then-mayor George Navarre hired Chester Davis from Anchorage to be the first chief of the North Kenai Fire Service Area. Davis brought Dave Unruh along with him to be his second-in-command, and the two became the first paid firefighters in the area.
Unruh, now a retired captain, still lives in the area and spoke to Senior EMS Captain Harrison Deveer leading up to the 50th anniversary to share his story about the department’s founding.
In video testimonials recorded by Deveer for the event, Unruh said that at the time, the station had one truck that could barely make it over 30 miles per hour. Unruh recalled that one of the volunteer firefighters told him that in order to reach 40 or 50 miles per hour, they often had to dump some of the water out of the tanker. Some of the people who had lived in the area were reluctant to have a fire department at all, and called it a waste of money, Unruh said. The budget for the department back then was about $70,000, which included the salaries of Unruh and Davis. At the time, Unruh said he made about $1,000 a month and took a pay cut from his job in Anchorage in order to come here.
“But how often do you get to start a fire department from scratch?” Unruh said. After a few years, Nikiski’s fire department had acquired a couple more vehicles, including an asphalt truck that had been converted into a water tanker and a van that was turned into an ambulance — nicknamed “The Yellowbird.” Under the direction of Davis, the department also acquired a second fire station, which was rented from the North Kenai Community Club and is located right across the street from the new Fire Station #2, which was built in 2010.
According to some of the personnel interviewed by the Clarion Monday, including 30-year receptionist Terry Carter, the Nikiski Fire department hit its stride in the early ‘80s after Al Willis became fire chief. Carter and others described Willis as a skilled politician who was able to acquire funds from the state and other agencies for all-new equipment, most of which remained in use until around 2008. Willis was also pivotal in expanding the department’s emergency response capabilities. Under Willis’ leadership, Nikiski Fire trained the first licensed paramedics in the state, a dive team and a high-angle technical rescue team, according to a written history Carter provided to the Clarion.
Willis brought on Billy Harris, a retired military firefighter, to help with training the firefighters. Harris said in an interview recorded by Deveer that when he first arrived, the salaried crew was reluctant to learn anything new. The volunteers, on the other hand, were eager to learn from Harris, and under his guidance Harris said they became as skilled as the paid firefighters.
With no hydrant system in the area, access to water has always been one of the biggest challenges facing Nikiski firefighters, so Harris and Willis also developed a cutting-edge water delivery system that is still in use today and is featured in multiple firefighting textbooks, according to the history provided by Carter.
Harris, who eventually took over as fire chief, said he continued to ensure the training standards for his firefighters were the highest in the state. Engineer Gail White, who’s been at the department 20 years, said that the standard for Nikiski firefighters remains the highest in the state to this day.
Because of its large service area, the Nikiski firefighters have to be prepared for anything. Matt Quiner, a 17-year veteran, described one of the first calls he went on when he joined the department. Quiner and the others responded to a house fire on Wik Road, and while they were putting the fire out the owner of the property arrived and suddenly had a seizure on the scene. The crew quickly put the homeowner into an ambulance and were headed toward Kenai, when the ambulance hit a moose. Luckily, the man was transferred into another ambulance and eventually treated, but Quiner said the experience made quite an impression on him.
“I came from Kodiak, which was a pretty quiet place,” Quiner said. “So when all that happened I thought, ‘Oh boy, what did I get myself into?’”
Despite having to deal with unconventional situations and emergencies, the personnel of the Nikiski Fire Department consider working there as if they are a part of a close-knit family.
“If I’m not here, my wife can call Rhonda or Gail or Ms. Terry or Matt and say ‘Hey I need help’ and they’ll be right there,” Deveer said. “That’s Nikiski Fire and that’s the community of Nikiski.”
As the folks of the Nikiski Fire Department celebrated 50 years of protecting the community, the next generation of firefighters and paramedics — including volunteers Vlad Glushkov and Brandon Edwards who joined earlier this year — are being trained to continue that service and live up to the department’s motto: “Always ready, proud to serve.”