Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion Craig Ralston, former Senior Captain of the Nikiski Fire Department, listens to a speaker pay tribute to his rescue work during his retirement party on Friday, Nov. 13 at the Nikiski Senior Center. Ralston served the Fire Department as a staff member and volunteer for a total of 34 years.

Out of the fire and into retirement

Craig Ralston’s coworkers and friends describe the soon-to-be retired Nikiski firefighter as dedicated, loyal, tenacious and experienced.

After two years as a volunteer and 32 years of full-time work with the Nikiski Fire Department, Ralston is retiring as a senior captain. However, as much as he said he looks forward to having more time to devote to commercial fishing each summer, he’s not taking himself completely out of the game.

Ralston plans on applying to be a volunteer once more, he said. Nikiski Fire Chief James Baisden, who has worked with Ralston for eight years, said it will be helpful to not lose Ralston and his years of expertise completely.

“You take for granted, and they take for granted, everything they’ve learned on the job,” Baisden said. “You think about putting 34 years into one organization, that’s a pretty good run.”

Ralston, who grew up near Boulder, Colorado, said he had always been active and a fan of the outdoors. When he and his wife slapped an “Alaska or bust” sign on their vehicle and moved to the Kenai Peninsula, he said he took the position volunteering for the fire department as a way to keep busy and pay the bills. His previous job driving a bus proved helpful — he knew his way around most of Nikiski when he became a firefighter.

Ralston has climbed the ranks and sought new certifications in the emergency medical field since his career with Nikiski Fire began in 1981. From getting involved with the department’s dive team when it was first created in 1985, and developing and maintaining an AED program for the entire Nikiski community, to serving in several capacities on the Kenai Peninsula Emergency Medical Services Council, Ralston has stayed at the forefront of the department’s emergency medicine.

Ralston purchased the AEDs placed in Nikiski schools and community centers when they went on sale after being used in the 2002 Winter Olympics, he said. He has also sought funding that helped the department upgrade its life-saving equipment and vehicles over the years.

“Craig was one of the guys who was very successful in getting grants for the department,” Baisden said.

Ralston is one of only several hundred paramedics in the whole state, said long-time colleague Samantha Cunningham, a paramedic in Homer.

The two met in 1995 when Ralston brought Cunningham and her late husband to Nikiski to help with medical instruction. They grew close through conferences and training and through bouncing ideas off each other within their somewhat small work community, Cunningham said.

“It’s not like there are billions of them (paramedics) floating around Alaska,” she said.

That Ralston left the state to attend further paramedic training in the Lower 48 in 1989 is a testament to how dedicated he was to the job, Cunningham said.

“It’s a fairly daunting thing to do, and he did it anyway,” she said.

Ralston has always been the person to say “yes” to things asked of him and always one to do his work with a smile, Cunningham said.

When Baisden tells his younger firefighters to think of someone they would like to emulate on the job, or someone they would want to be responding if they found themselves in an emergency, he said Ralston is often the one that comes to mind.

Ralston cited the diverse background of skills needed to work in an area like Nikiski and the friends he has made while leading the medical side of the department as the things that kept his spark of excitement alive through more than 30 years.

Recalling one particularly memorable save, Ralston described hiking about a half mile to find two men stranded on the opposite side of a creek when their canoe was trapped by a fallen tree. He remembered having to traverse the stream through abnormally high waters to reach the men, and then lead them back across with a rope.

“A sweeper is where you have a tree that’s fallen down in the water, and so the water comes up and hits that and the majority of (things) will sweep underneath,” Ralston said. “Luckily the two individuals didn’t get caught, pulled underneath there… I brought them back over… then the rest of the fire department hiked on down and took care of some mild hypothermia.”

Cunningham recalled that Ralston has always been able to remain “very even-keeled in the middle of it all.”

Now, Ralston looks forward to being able to indulge his habit of traveling more frequently, and said he is thinking of getting involved in missionary work.

“The excitement comes through knowing that you’re doing a service where people… have gotten into a bad situation and we’re able to help them get out of it,” Ralston said. “The knowledge of them being able to go on from that point and continue on with their lives and family and that, is satisfaction enough.”

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsula.com.

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