Volunteer Fire Department in Port Alsworth takes shape

Jul 1, 2016

In the absence of a local government, it's taken years of fundraising, grant-writing, and dedicated volunteers to launch a fire department in Port Alsworth. 

Port Alsworth volunteers during a training earlier this year.
Credit Kathryn Bronn

The community of Port Alsworth on Lake Clark has a volunteer fire department for the first time, thanks in part to husband and wife team Warren and Beth Hill. 

Warren, who has a background in emergency medicine, is the new fire chief. He said the community has been very under-prepared to respond to house fires in the past.  

"The last one was someone’s workshop was on fire. That was a pretty hazardous situation, with propane cylinders, paints, chemicals and all kinds of stuff burning, and we had to deal with it,” said Hill. “Nobody had any training or equipment. It’s one of those things where the community would come together, we had a bucket brigade, and everybody had their little trash pumps out. We made it work."

Beth Hill is administrator of the Port Alsworth Improvement Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that serves in place of a local government in Port Alsworth. Through the PAIC, she was able to get the paperwork in order and write grants to buy a fire truck. 

The crew received a crash-course on the fire truck by a friend-of-a-friend, and the local National Park Service office has agreed to share resources as well. Cell phone service in the area is spotty, so the fire crew is still working on a centralized communication system.

Fire department volunteers in training in Port Alsworth.
Credit Kathryn Bronn

The VFD also raised funds at Port Alsworth's spring carnival in April, when community members donated roundtrip airfare, fishing and kayaking trips, and handcrafted artwork to be raffled and auctioned off. The event raised $7,000 this year and $14,000 the previous year, including a substantial anonymous donation. 

"The fundraiser is really what's been creating a stronger awareness in the community that the VFD is happening," said Beth Hill. "It's a fun event that would not be possible without the energy of a lot of community members." 

These efforts have only recently gotten support in the growing community of 200, where many people pride themselves on being independent.

"People are afraid that having public services means that they’re gonna have to pay taxes," says Mr. Hill. "Most people kind of scoffed when we even started to talk about trying to start a VFD, but since then we’ve gained a lot of support. You know, your safety isn’t just up to you any more, it could be that your neighbors start a fire and then your house is on fire."

"So people are realizing that the town has grown beyond that and it’s time to start building some infrastructure," added Mr. Hill.

Along with the infrastructure, the VFD also needs the skills to use their new equipment. Hill has a crew of 16 volunteers so far; he says at least half of them will head to the state’s rural firefighting training program next spring.